President Barack Obama is taking his family to Florida's Gulf Coast for a weekend trip billed as part family vacation, part presidential sales pitch, as Obama looks to boost the region's sagging tourism industry in the aftermath of the massive Gulf oil spill.
The president, first lady Michelle Obama and daughter Sasha (her sister Malia's at summer camp) planned to spend much of their 27-hour trip to Panama City, Florida, enjoying the area's recreational activities. But the president also plans to meet with small business owners as the government's focus moves from plugging the oil leak to rebuilding the region's economy.
The trip gives the president an opportunity to "talk to those that have been affected by the damage caused by BP ... about what has to happen going forward to restore, both economically and environmentally, the damage that's been done," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on Friday.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, a former Mississippi governor appointed by Obama to develop a long-term Gulf restoration plan, were also to join Obama in the meeting with business owners.
In Florida, particularly the Panhandle region where the Obamas will spend the weekend, it's tourism, the state's top industry, that's been hurt most by the spill.
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 US 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.
The White House scheduled the Obamas' weekend trip after facing criticism that the president wasn't heeding his own advice that Americans vacation in the Gulf, instead scheduling his own family vacations to North Carolina and Martha's Vineyard. Mrs. Obama also traveled to Spain this month with Sasha.
The biggest question surrounding the weekend trip is just how far will Obama go to show Americans that the region is safe to visit - more specifically, will the president take a dip in the Gulf of Mexico?
Gibbs sidestepped that question on Friday, saying that while the president would have some fun, "whether or not he gets in the water is up for clearly some debate."
The government's point man on the spill, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, said on Friday that the blown-out well in the Gulf is not yet securely plugged to his satisfaction and that drilling the relief well, long regarded as the only way to ensure that the hole at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico never leaks oil again, must go forward.
Work on the relief well was suspended earlier this week because of bad weather. Allen did not say when it would resume, but when the order comes, it could take four days to get the operation up and running again.