By Joseph Williams, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- So much for the Obama common touch.
After whisking his wife to Manhattan for dinner and a Broadway show last weekend, President Obama is treating his family to a Paris vacation -- paid for, in part, by the taxpayers.
The White House confirmed today that first lady Michelle Obama, their two daughters, and his mother-in-law will fly Friday to the City of Lights to join the president, who has scheduled meetings with French officials and will appear at a ceremony Saturday in Normandy marking the 65th anniversary of D-Day.
Last year on the campaign trail, the Obamas prided themselves on staying close to the people. Much was made of Michelle Obama's down-to-earth J.Crew wardrobe, candidate Obama's off-the-rack suits, and the family's search for a "shelter dog" to satisfy the wishes of 10-year-old Malia and 7-year-old Sasha for a puppy.
Now, the French press is buzzing about whether the first family will dine at a posh restaurant atop the Eiffel Tower, what fashions the first lady will wear, and whether she'll outshine Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, her glamourous French counterpart.
But the trip has raised eyebrows among government watchdog groups, particularly since it comes so soon after the Obama's pricey "date night" jaunt to New York -- the president called it fulfilling a campaign promise -- and in the midst of what Obama himself has called the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
One public interest group notes that the White House still hasn't disclosed expenses from the Manhattan trip -- estimated to be about $30,000 -- and argues that the public should get a full accounting of a "flashy" European vacation.
Leslie Paige, a spokeswoman for Citizens Against Government Waste, said Obama has such a demanding job few would begrudge him some presidential perks -- as long as he doesn't completely indulge himself on the taxpayer's dime. The problem, she said, is Obama has not made his expenses public, and thus is failing to keep his pledge to run an open, transparent government.
"I doubt we'll see the true cost of the trip to Paris," Paige said. Not keeping his promise "has been a disappointment, to say the least," she added.
A White House spokeswoman said Michelle Obama will accompany her husband to the Normandy tribute, but otherwise the family's schedule while in Paris will be private. Under government rules, the spokeswoman said, Obama will personally pay for any non-official expenses he and his family incur on the trip, but their expense report will not be released. The president plans to return to Washington on Sunday, but his family plans to stay longer in Paris.
The spokeswoman said for security reasons, the family will cross the Atlantic in a government jet. The Obamas will reimburse the government at commercial fares, but she would not say at what rate.
While it's important to keep the trip in perspective because "there are a lot of big-ticket items like healthcare that will be a lot more important in the long run," Paige said, Obama might have thought twice about taking such a high-profile family vacation.
"He's under a microscope," perhaps more than any president in modern history, Paige said, and a little modesty will go a long way.
"Maybe he could be more austere," she added, "with a little less flash, and a little more transparency."
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.