Obama's Florida trip: With BP oil spill receding, time for a swim?

Obama is feeling pressure to take his shirt off and show the world that the Gulf Coast is safe for swimming after the April 20 BP oil spill.

Jason Reed/Reuters
President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and their daughter Sasha enjoy lunch at Lime's Bayside Bar and Grill looking out onto a bay during their short vacation in Panama City Beach, Florida, Saturday.

Few things would say "the beaches are back" like President Obama tearing off his shirt and running into the surf at Panama City, Fla., during a brief vacation swing to the oil-spill-harassed Gulf Coast Saturday.

That's indeed the scene Gulf Coast residents are desperately hoping for as Mr. Obama and his family arrived in Panama City for a little downtime. The 27-hour trip preceding a jaunt to Martha's Vineyard, Mass., is an attempt to boost a flagging tourist economy in the wake of the BP oil spill.

Concern about oiled beaches and water quality – along with reports of some bathers getting sick – caused hundreds of thousands of vacationgoers to forgo the white sand beaches of the Gulf Coast this summer, costing Florida alone some $1.2 billion in lost revenues.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs wouldn't confirm or deny the president's bathing plans during a press conference Friday. “Why don't we all worry about what happens on Saturday,” he said.

"[That] image does matter to us," Beth Oltman, president of the Panama City Beach Chamber of Commerce, told Fox News. "We cannot pay for that media attention – by just having the president of the United States in our Gulf will show so many different Americans that our waters are safe to come swim in."

Obama made remarks along those lines during a press conference Saturday in Panama City Beach. Part of the reason for the family visit, he said, was to show that Gulf Coast beaches are "clean, safe, and open for business."

"The governor [Charlie Crist] and the mayors and others invited us down to enjoy the beach and the water, to let our fellow Americans know that they should come on down here. It is spectacular," Obama said. "And not just to support the region, but also because it's a beautiful place to visit."

After the press conference, the president told reporters that he will take a swim this weekend – but no photographers or reporters allowed.

Obama, who grew up in Hawaii, is no stranger to bathing suits. He was famously photographed shirtless at a beach during the 2008 presidential race, showing off a fit physique. But swim trips have also brought some negative coverage. Pictures of first lady Michelle Obama and younger daughter Sasha cavorting on a Spanish beach recently seemed to clash with the president's calls for sacrifice and frugality.

States like Florida spent millions on advertising this summer, pointing out that most beaches are still clean and open and that there are many things to do along the Coast other than swimming. But perceptions have proved difficult to change, some say.

"In today's consumer mind-set, safety is paramount, and tourists are answering the question of how safe it is to get into the water with their wallets at this point," Mark Bonn, a tourism expert at Florida State University in Tallahassee, told the Monitor in June.

The Gulf Coast may lose $22.7 billion in tourism revenue over the next three years because of the oil spill, according to a study released last week by the US Travel Association.

But the capping of the leaking well last month and subsequent news that the some of the spilled oil is degrading have helped boost late-summer hotel reservations along the coast, officials report.

Obama served Gulf seafood at a White House barbecue to show that it is safe to eat, and he has in speeches and previous trips to the Gulf tried to entice tourists to head back to the beaches.

But a simple presidential swim could undo even more of the damage from the spill, opines CNN's Tom Foreman in a "letter" to Obama.

"If people see you playing in the water and having a good time, they’ll think, 'Hey, he’s the president.... [H]e has legions of folks assigned to keeping him safe and healthy. So if he’s in the water, then …,' " Mr. Foreman writes.

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