Michelle Obama looks to restore luster lost after vacation in Spain 

After her sterling public image took on some tarnish from her recent vacation to Spain, the White House announced that first lady Michelle Obama will appear with Laura Bush for Sept. 11 observances in Pennsylvania.

The deft public relations move by the administration will place the two popular first ladies side-by-side for the first time since the 2008 inauguration.

"I am proud to be a part of the ceremony and public gathering in Shanksville on September 11 to commemorate the courageous acts of those on board Flight 93," Bush said in a statement. "We must never forget the brave sacrifice of these extraordinary men and women."

Obama, vacationing with her family on Martha's Vineyard, saw her popularity dip after a recent trip to Spain with daughter Sasha, 9.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll after the Spain trip found just 50 percent of Americans had a positive opinion of the first lady, down 14 percent from the same poll in April.

A Gallup poll in July before the Spain trip found Michelle Obama with a 66 percent favorability rating -- well ahead of President Obama's 52 percent.

At the time, a flurry of news coverage described a clamor among Democrats to have the popular first lady campaign for the party's candidates.

The White House, eager to deploy her as a political asset but unwilling to have her appear too partisan, was considering how best to use Obama in the fall.

The subsequent trip to Spain was paid for with a combination of private funds and public money, which paid for security -- notably, Secret Service protection -- and government aircraft.

But the coverage for the first lady was devastating. A New York Daily News columnist called Michelle Obama a "material girl" and compared her to Marie Antoinette.

In the early August doldrums of Washington, her trip became fodder for cable news debates and blog skirmishes.

With Americans worried about jobs and the economy, critics said, a pricey trip with a sizable entourage of 40 to a five-star European resort was a rare misstep for the sure-footed first lady.

At the White House, press secretary Robert Gibbs declined to discuss fallout from the first lady's trip, saying he had not heard the president's opinion of the bad press it generated.

Last year, the first lady commemorated the terrorist attacks by attending a wreath-laying at the Pentagon Memorial with the president, among other events in Washington.

Gallup pollsters noted that Laura Bush averaged a 71 percent approval rating during her husband's presidency and left the White House in 2009 with a 76 percent favorability rating.

Neil Mulholland, president and CEO of the National Park Foundation, said the organization is "deeply honored" by the first ladies' participation this year.

With so much attention paid to Ground Zero and the Pentagon, the Flight 93 crash site is often overlooked in popular commemoration.

jmason@washingtonexaminer.com

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