In effort to spur gulf tourism, Obamas dive in

By Michael D. Shear and Michael W. Savage
Sunday, August 15, 2010; A04

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.

That's what several locals had said they were eager to see. "He's got to get in the water," Mark Bellinger, director of Emerald Coast tourism, told the Miami Herald. "I'd be ecstatic."

The president could not totally escape Washington on Saturday. Obama generated a new round of headlines on Web sites when he clarified his earlier remarks about a new Islamic center being built near New York's Ground Zero.

But as soon as the president and his family were done with official business Saturday, they started acting more like tourists.

First up was a trip to Lime's Bayside Bar and Grill, located on a long pier with wooden tables featuring buckets of napkins and bottled water. The three famous diners shared fish tacos, chicken tenders, a burger and guacamole.

Sitting at the edge of the water, Obama wore a white polo shirt, a tan baseball cap with a USSS logo and sunglasses. The first lady switched into a black tank top and sunglasses.

After lunch, the Obamas took the time for a family game of putt-putt. Sasha hit her bright orange ball into a hole-in-one on the first hole, prompting a beaming father to say, "Did you guys see that one? . . . That was unbelievable. Man. Hole in one." The first lady didn't do as well, taking what she called "a first lady gimmie" on the hole.

It is the fifth time the president has visited the area since the oil spill crisis began, but perhaps not the family's first choice for a vacation spot. The decision to come here, after all, was virtually ensured by the first lady's remarks the last time she visited.

"It's welcoming, it's pristine, and everybody should come here!" she said of the beaches in Panama City, Fla., last month. "Truly, the best thing your fellow Americans can do is come down here and spend some money."

The weekend getaway is a change from prior trips.

Michelle Obama just returned from Spain with Sasha. And there was the Maine weekend, when the family escaped to a tiny seaside town in the cool air of the upper Northeast. And earlier, the family spent a couple of days at a fancy North Carolina resort that has hosted presidents for 100 years.

The Obamas took in Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon earlier this year. But it is Martha's Vineyard -- haven of the rich and powerful -- that appears to have the most appeal. Obama and his family vacationed there last August for a week, and they are returning this summer for 10 days.

For one member of the first family, any place is a good place for a vacation. First dog Bo appeared especially enthusiastic.

He bounded up and down the aisles of Air Force One, looking for treats. After a brief helicopter ride from the airport to the Coast Guard's Panama City district office, Bo looked eager as he waited on a leash for his family to arrive.

Shear reported from Washington.

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