Was the First Lady's shopping trip part of an effort to maintain a precious piece of private life, or a well-managed photo op?
First Lady Obama's trip to the Target store on Route 1 in Alexandria, VA on Thursday is now the shopping trip heard 'round the world. Clad in sunglasses and a Nike baseball cap, the First Lady's purchases during the 30-40 minute "incognito" outing included dog food and toys for First Dog Bo, the White House confirmed. As noted in this post, Bo does in fact dine on an unnamed store-bought dog food, a White House aide told Obama Foodorama. Now we know it comes from Target. But the dog food run has inspired global headlines, thanks to criticism from those who routinely attack Mrs. Obama, including for her nutrition initiatives with the Let's Move! campaign. (Above: Mrs. Obama at the checkout counter with an aide)
Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck--among others--called Mrs. Obama's Target run a "set-up" designed to make the First Lady look like a regular citizen for Campaign Season, thanks to the fact that the photos at the check-out counter were snapped by veteran White House photographer Charles Dharapak of Associated Press. One of the photos was above the banner on Drudge Report all afternoon and evening on Thursday, which sent right-wing media into a feeding frenzy by Friday.
"What a phony-baloney plastic banana good-time rock-and-roll optic photo-op that was,” Limbaugh said on his Friday radio show. "It has gotten so bad, they had to send Mooochelle out there in a Lady Gaga-type getup. She went shopping at Target. Have you seen the pictures?"
Limbaugh, for his part, has set a new bar for bashing Presidential spouses, who in previous Administrations have been treated with far more respect.
President Obama on Friday also discussed his wife's Target outing, but he didn't address the criticism.
“One thing she loves to do is go shopping at Target,” President Obama told Philadelphia radio show host Michael Smerconish. He added that he was glad his wife “can sneak off," because he can't, thanks to traveling in a giant motorcade, which he joked included "an ambulance and a caboose and a dogsled."
Some in the media have jumped to Mrs. Obama's defense, saying the right-wing criticism is unfair and skewed, including Lynn Sweet, Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times. In a column published today, Sweet pushed back by noting that Mrs. Obama is a known "Target shopper," and said that Beck and Limbaugh are being unfair.
"Mrs. Obama has very high-end, elite, expensive shopping tastes and has taken some lavish vacations," Sweet wrote. "But fair is fair. She also likes to shop at Target and has talked about the loss of her ability to just roam the aisles of one of her favorite stores."
Sweet pointed to a January 2010 interview where Mrs. Obama mentioned this exact subject. Asked what she missed about life back home in Chicago, Mrs. Obama said “going to the Target on Roosevelt Road and going to the Dominick’s. I mean, small things.”
Mrs. Obama has even worn a dress purchased from Target, like millions of other Americans. In August of 2009, she was photographed in a dress by Target brand Merona, which retailed for about $40.
Was the photographer tipped off?
The White House Press Office, run by the West Wing, and the Office of the First Lady, which micromanages Mrs. Obama's image and public appearances, do indeed work with members of the media, giving "exclusives" for interviews and story topics. But Kristina Schake, Mrs. Obama's Communications Director, declined to confirm if photographer Dharapak had been alerted.
"It is not uncommon for the First Lady to slip out to run an errand, eat at a local restaurant or otherwise enjoy the city outside the White House gates," was all Schake would say about the Target run.
As noted here, Mrs. Obama does indeed travel "incognito" around the Washington area, making visits to restaurants and other places which manage to go unremarked by the media or civilians if she is in a very small motorcade that doesn't attract a lot of attention (motorcades are routine in the Washington area, thanks to visiting world leaders, and if there aren't road blocks and, er," dogsleds," locals ignore these as part of daily life). The First Lady's "incognito" outings have become vastly more difficult to keep private thanks to Twitter and phone cameras, as hockey star Alex Ovechkin so aptly illustrated when he tweeted a photo of himself with Mrs. Obama after they bumped into each other at a restaurant that's two blocks from the White House. Many members of the media thought the photo was photoshopped until the East Wing confirmed the unplanned meet n' greet as real.
AP would not confirm if Dharapak had been tipped off, nor would Dharapak himself. It just so happens Dharapak is "wired in," AP spokesman Paul Colford told Politico, crediting Dahrapak's presence to "good source work." Dharapak has declined public comment.
Target would not comment about the First Lady's visit either, though the company tweeted about it.
"First Lady Michelle Obama may be incognito but there is no denying those signature @Target red carts!" was tweeted from the @Bullseyeview account. @Target retweeted it.
Secret Service agents swept the target ahead of Mrs. Obama's visit, and the store remained in "lockdown" mode even after she left, according to Politico. No media were allowed inside the store without permission, and employees were not allowed to speak with reporters. Television cameras had to get clearance from corporate headquarters even to film outside the store. Inside, Target allowed filming for no more than 20 minutes, and in only two aisles chosen by the store — and no pictures of cash registers.
Only store manager Maria Panagopulos was allowed to speak for the company, and only over the telephone.
“It was so quick,” Panagopulos, told WJLA-TV, which is owned by Politico's parent company. “We only realized it was her [Mrs. Obama] at the end of her visit. She was incognito. The team was really excited. We hadn’t had an Obama family member since the beginning of his term as far as we are aware.”
“We would love to see her again anytime she’d like to shop with us,” Panagopulos said.
The store manager shouldn't pin her hopes on President Obama, however. The President told Smerconish that he's personally not interested in a Target run.
“I don’t even want to shop. All I want to do is take a walk,” President Obama said.
Mrs. Obama has yet to be photographed shopping at a Walmart, though she has a historic public private partnership for the Let's Move! campaign with the company, which is Target's biggest competitor. Walmart has pledged to trim fat, sugar, and salt from its private label food products, as well as build markets in "food deserts." Target has made no such commitment.
And by the way, if you walk into any Walmart in America, there's no sign that the White House partnership even exists. There are not photos of Mrs. Obama, and no sign that the store has gone to work revamping its products; the company's efforts are still largely behind-the-scenes.
*Photos by Charles Dharapak/AP