With a quick family trip to the Gulf Coast, President Barack Obama is offering his personal assurance that the region is a safe, clean vacation destination despite the massive oil spill.
Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, daughter Sasha and family dog Bo arrived Saturday for a 27-hour stop in the Florida Panhandle. As many residents here had hoped, Obama took Sasha for a swim in the Gulf waters that have absorbed 200 million gallons of oil since an offshore rig exploded in April.
The Obamas' other daughter, Malia, is at summer camp.
"Beaches all along the Gulf Coast are clean, they are safe, and they are open for business," said Obama.
The president's dip happened away from the media. The White House released an official photo, but The Associated Press does not publish such handout images. According to the White House, the Obamas swam off Alligator Point, which is in Saint Andrew Bay, not the Gulf.
The first family spent much of the day at their beachfront hotel, venturing to Lime's Bayside Bar & Grill, where they relaxed on an outdoor deck overlooking the water and ate a lunch of fish tacos, chicken tenders and burgers. They later headed into town for a round of miniature golf, where 9-year-old Sasha stole the show with a hole-in-one off the first tee. The family was to return to Washington Sunday evening.
The White House scheduled the trip after facing criticism that the president wasn't heeding his own advice that Americans vacation in the Gulf. Obama vacationed in North Carolina this spring, Maine earlier this summer, and will head to Martha's Vineyard, off the Massachusetts coast, later in August. Mrs. Obama also traveled to Spain this month with Sasha.
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.
Though the oil may no longer be spewing from BP's offshore oil rig that exploded April 20, Obama told residents here that there is still much work to be done, and promised the federal government would not abandon them.
"I'm here to tell you that our job is not finished and we are not going anywhere until it is," Obama said.
Meantime, the government's point man on the Gulf spill said he wants additional testing before he orders BP to finish drilling a relief well that will allow the oil giant to plug the well for good.
Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen told reporters it could be late Monday or early Tuesday before officials know the results of those tests.
That means it would be Tuesday at the earliest before he gives his final order to proceed with the relief well, and next weekend at the earliest before the damaged well would be plugged for good.
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