In effort to spur gulf tourism, Obamas dive in

A look at some of the vacation spots visited by the Obama family.
By Michael D. Shear and Michael W. Savage
Sunday, August 15, 2010

PANAMA CITY, FLA. -- Most people who arrive for their weekend getaway in the hot and humid area commonly called the "Redneck Riviera" make a beeline for the beach, rip off their clothes and take a quick dive in the ocean.

But for President Obama, it's a bit more complicated than that.

Yes, the president told reporters as he arrived here, he did plan to take a symbolic swim in the oil-threatened waters of the gulf. But he said he planned to do so out of view of the cameras, which might catch a glimpse. Last time, he reminded them, he ended up shirtless on the cover of magazines.

"That's a good thing," a reporter suggested.

"No," said the press-shy first lady, standing next to the president, "it's not."

The exchange was a reminder that the 27-hour trip to this beach destination is as much about presidential symbolism as it is about relaxation for the first family, which arrived here with dog Bo, but without older daughter Malia, who is at summer camp.

Later Saturday afternoon, the president did, in fact, take a dip in the warm waters of the gulf. A picture released by the White House showed him swimming with daughter Sasha. Obama was shirtless, but all you could really see above the water was his head. Aides said the president's swim took place at the beach in front of the hotel not far from where he ate lunch.

The short visit is intended to demonstrate to potential tourists that the gulf region is still a lovely spot to vacation despite uncertainty caused by the oil that gushed out of a broken well.

In remarks at the local Coast Guard station, Obama used the opportunity to reassure gulf residents that even though the leak is plugged, the government will not abandon the residents and businesses that remain.

"I'm here to tell you that our job is not finished, and we're not going anywhere until it is," he said. "That's a message I wanted to come here and deliver directly to the people along the Gulf Coast. I will not be satisfied until the environment is restored, no matter how long it takes."

The remarks followed a roundtable discussion with local business owners.

But the most effective images for Panama City and the rest of the struggling gulf economy are likely to be the ones of a happy first family enjoying themselves the way regular tourists might.

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