PANAMA CITY BEACH—The first family dashed to the Florida Panhandle on Saturday so President Barack Obama could play pitchman - Gulf Coast beaches are clean and open for business - and assure residents his government won't abandon them now that the busted well has stopped spewing oil.
He also said he "absolutely" would plunge into waters that absorbed 200 million gallons of oil. Expect the dip on Sunday, he told reporters accompanying him on the 27-hour excursion to the Sunshine State, whose tourism industry is reeling from the spill.
Obama said he brought his family - first lady Michelle Obama, daughter Sasha (sister Malia is at summer camp) and family dog Bo - to Florida "to let our fellow Americans know that they should come on down here. It is spectacular. Not just to support the region. Come down here because it's a beautiful place to visit."
Arriving at their beachfront hotel, the first family ventured to Lime's Bayside Bar & Grill, where they relaxed on an outdoor deck overlooking the water.
Obama is on his fifth trip to the region since April 20 explosion on a deepwater rig that caused the spill. Obama said he knows Gulf Coast residents have been frustrated by the slow payment of claims from a $20 billion BP fund for those who have suffered damages as a result of the spill, and he pledged to rectify that.
"Any delay by BP or those managing the new funds are unacceptable. And I will keep pushing to get these claims expedited," Obama said.
The president and first lady were joined at a roundtable discussion by Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, a former Mississippi governor appointed by Obama to develop a long-term Gulf restoration plan; the mayors of Panama City and Panama City Beach; the general manager of a three-hotel chain that has had 1,000 room night cancellations due to the spill, translating into more than $191,000 in lost room revenue alone; the owner of a charter boat company; and the co-owner of a restaurant and two fishing boats.
Tourism officials say the region typically brings in 70 percent of its yearly income between June and August. Although only 16 of the 180 beaches in the western part of the Panhandle were affected by the spill, tourism officials say many potential visitors have stayed away, deterred by images of oil-slicked waters and tarball-strewn beaches in other parts of the region.
The head of the U.S. Travel Association has proposed that BP, responsible for the oil spill, set aside $500 million for a marketing campaign to help draw tourists to the Gulf states.
Alabama's attorney general on Thursday sued BP and others companies associated with the spill, seeking unspecified economic and punitive damages. At least 300 federal lawsuits have been filed in 12 states against BP and the other three main companies involved in the explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drill rig.
Obama pledged to keep his administration focused on cleaning up the environment, holding the polluters accountable, ensuring that businesses and communities `are made whole and the people of the Gulf Coast are back on their feet."
The White House scheduled the Obamas' trip after facing criticism that the president wasn't heeding his own advice that Americans vacation in the Gulf.
"This is still a place that's open for business and welcoming so vacationers and people can have a wonderful holiday here," Obama said during a June trip to Pensacola, Fla. - one of his four to the region before this weekend.
The first lady went a step further during a July visit to Panama City Beach. "One of the best ways that fellow Americans can help is to come on down here and spend some money," she said.
Obama has vacationed in North Carolina this summer and is heading to Martha's Vineyard, off the Massachusetts coast, later in August. Mrs. Obama also traveled to Spain this month with Sasha.
The government's point man on the spill, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, said Friday that the blown-out well was not securely plugged to his satisfaction. He said that drilling a relief well - long regarded as the only way to ensure that the hole at the bottom of the Gulf never leaks oil again - must go forward.
Work on the relief well was suspended this past week because of bad weather.