Washington (CNN) – There's really only one big question hanging over President Obama's weekend vacation to Panama City, Florida: Will he or won't he dive into the water to send a message that the Gulf Coast is back?
"Absolutely, I want him to take his shirt off and get in the water and show it's clean and safe," said Stephen Leatherman, a professor at Florida International University in Miami who puts together an annual list of America's best beaches.
Leatherman rates the beach there as one of the top 10 in the country, and he said Obama has a unique opportunity to showcase the fact that the Gulf Coast is still open for business despite the worst oil spill in American history.
"It's got lily-white sand, and frankly the oil didn't really make it there - it was pretty well spared," said Leatherman, who noted that the water is 87 or 88 degrees because of the steamy Florida weather, making it conducive to at least a quick presidential plunge.
"There is no better symbol than the president of the United States showing us the way," Leatherman said.
But White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was cagey Friday when reporters asked whether the president will take a swim during the first family's 27-hour mini-vacation.
"Stay tuned," said Gibbs, who grew slightly impatient and a bit bemused about getting so many queries about something as seemingly minor as a presidential swim.
"Look, he's going to have some fun," Gibbs said. "Whether or not he gets in the water is up for clearly some debate. But, look, he will have an opportunity to enjoy ... the physical beauty of the Gulf and do some work at the same time."
Mindful that Obama caused a bit of a tabloid stir when he took off his shirt to reveal a muscular physique during trips to Hawaii during the 2008 presidential campaign and subsequent presidential transition, Gibbs turned it around on reporters and wondered whether they would bare their midriffs this weekend.
"Are you bringing your suits?" Gibbs said with a smile.
But Leatherman suggested it's no joking matter because the president's decision to swim or not to swim will carry tremendous symbolic weight.
"I think it's very important that he gets into the water because I think there's this feeling that if you get in, you're going to get contaminated or get all kinds of diseases," he said.
This will be the president's fifth trip to the Gulf region since the April 20 explosion that sparked the horrific oil disaster. The trip is already generating criticism over whether Obama is giving the region short shrift by spending only parts of Saturday and Sunday in Panama City.
White House officials announced the trip earlier this summer after critics wondered why the president and first lady had urged Americans to vacation in the Gulf but originally chose Bar Harbor, Maine, and Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, as the only locations for their own sojourns.
Now, the criticism has shifted to whether 27 hours in Panama City is too quick of a jaunt, and the Republican National Committee released a statement Friday that also said Obama has included Florida in only a couple of his trips to the region in recent months.
"It's nice to see the president take the time out of his busy schedule of golf games and campaign fundraisers to clear his conscience and visit Florida for only the second time since the oil crisis began," RNC spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg said. "As he meets with business owners in the Panhandle, it seems like the perfect opportunity for him to explain how his reckless spending, tax increases, and government takeover of health care are supposed to help the Gulf's devastated economy. Not even the Sunshine State can put a positive light on the president's failed liberal policies that have sunk his approval ratings to an all-time low."
The president will be accompanied by first lady Michelle Obama and their younger daughter Sasha - big sister Malia is still away at camp and will not be in Florida. Obama will also be joined by his Gulf Coast recovery chief, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, to try to show the administration is committed to a long-term turnaround.
Gibbs largely deflected questions about whether the trip was too short, saying the president is focused on promoting the "health of the region" with the vacation.
"Tourism in Florida and along the Gulf Coast is the economy," Gibbs told reporters Friday. "This is an opportunity to highlight the notion that this important region of the country is still doing well and open for business."
While Leatherman said he does think the trip seems too short, Obama should be applauded for carving out some time to help the region.
"I think it's basically a photo-op, isn't it?" said Leatherman. "But I still think it's a good thing for the president to come down and show the world that it's clean and safe. That will go a long way to helping the Gulf Coast."
Leatherman added: "The best thing that could happen is the president saying, 'I'm going in!' And I don't mean damn the torpedoes. I mean him saying, 'It's clean and safe, and I'm going in the water!' "
He concluded that it's a good thing the president is visiting one of the nation's best beaches in the summer instead of earlier in the year.
"It's also one of the best spring break beaches, but I don't recommend going then," Leatherman said. "I went once, and there were 500,000 people there. I don't know if it was actually 500,000 all at once, but it felt like it."
He may not be able to fit it in with the SHORT time he is there for photo-op purposes and honing his golf game.
Then off to the "vineyard" for an extended stay away from the "peasants" eh, Material girl?
The media will gush and the bots will swoon and we will remember in November.
Not just "No!", but "HELLLLLLLLLLLL NO!" Don't start "dance'n" for these folks that hate you. They'll always move the "satisfied" goal-line further, and further. You can never please them... Tell them you'll swim in it, if they'll drink it.
Frankly speaking, the Prez needs to take trunk up and take the plunge. We haven't seen him in a swimsuit in ages!! lol!
How many weeks of vacation do we have to pay for the Obama's. 50 staff and 60 hotel rooms in Spain (can't figure the rooming arrangements on that one). Private jet. Now to Panama City and more staff since Barack is along. Lots of people aren't taking any vacation again this year because Obama is yet to fix the economy.
Get serious people. No one in their right mind will go into that water no matter how clean it is.
No doubt he'll be damned if he does, damned if he doesn't...
Some folks here will never be satisfied...
The hate filled republican party has nothing better to do than sit around and criticize everything our president does. Instead of trying to participate in rebuilding a country destroyed by 8 years of a republican administration they chose to to act like spoiled little punks and it's sad they have as many people as they do that are biting at the bit to follow them right off the cliff.
Democrats will sweep in 2010 and Obama will cruise to reelection in 2012... Get over it!!
i m sure he will meet with rep. meeks,,, why not ...
There's more in our waters than just oil and I won't go into details about all the unclean elements in water such as human waste. So I don't need President Obama to dive in any water to show me it's clean and safe, that's my personal choice.
From yesterday's UK Telegraph:
"Here are 10 key reasons why the Obama presidency is in serious trouble, and why its prospects are unlikely to improve between now and the November mid-terms.
1. The Obama presidency is out of touch with the American people
2. Most Americans don’t have confidence in the president’s leadership
3. Obama fails to inspire
4. The United States is drowning in debt
5. Obama’s Big Government message is falling flat
6. Obama’s support for socialised health care is a huge political mistake
7. Obama’s handling of the Gulf oil spill has been weak-kneed and indecisive
8. US foreign policy is an embarrassing mess under the Obama administration
9. President Obama is muddled and confused on national security
10. Obama doesn’t believe in American greatness"
Heckuva job, Barry!
To the right-wingers it won't matter what he does - they'll continue their lemming-like hate-filled Obama-bashing ways.
If President Obama were to WALK on the water, there would be those who would say, "He can't even swim!"
President Obama doesnt have to get in the sun or water.The Cuban crook from Miami is the one who needs the votes from the panhandleof Florida. Maybe we can find out more about Rubio and what he did with the GOP PARTY MONEY he used for private services and purchasers. The good old boys of the west coast of Florida won't vote for a MIAMI DADE POLITICIAN.
Knowing my President, he probably would if challenged. This proves that he is an American in my book. We Americans love challenges and when we're challenged, its time to compete. That's what bothers me with this Republican/Conservatives/Tea Party anti-immigration posture and the Arizona immigration law, it seems to me that we Americans don't know how to compete anymore. We're even afraid to compete with these little Mexicans coming across the river for jobs, etc. Now we want them deported
Dive in Obummie. We won't be able to see the oil on you anyway.
Of course he will take the plunge. It's a good photo opt. He hasent missed one yet.
Yea – like we need the UK (home to BP) telling us about our politics or politicians! They are still mad about the 20 Billion they had to fork over for their mess.
Mr. President – there are still plently of us out here who belive in you and in your policies. You told us things would probably get worse before they got better. You told us it would be a long haul to get this country back on track. You were right! We are still with you and know you will do what is best for our Nation as a whole. Not just for the privledged few!
Thank you, Mr. President. Don't listen to the naysayers! They just wish they had your intelligence and stamina. . .
To "terry,va" – people like you make me sick!! Your comment shows you wear your ignorance well.
Don't Do It Mr. President!
Terry of Va., are you unable to post anything that isn't racist?
If you look from right angle what ever Obama say or do is wrong
I don’t care what UK think about our president . UK mislead us to Iraq war
Rickster: What socialist-inspired health care plan are you talking about? Certainly not the one passed this year. It is the most capitalistic piece of legislation possible. The insurance companies make further profits by getting more customers and there is no restraint on their raising premiums in the near future. In fact, they have already raised premiums on some employer plans. All of the points you listed can be argued against successfully, especially the last one – that the president doesn't believe in American greatness. I'm sure he hasn't forgotten the fact that in spite of the many bigots and racists against him, he was elected President of the United States of America. That was pretty great. Stay tuned. He's not done yet.
Hate to break it to y'all, but...
He's used to beaches in Hawaii... Pacific Ocean vs Gulf of Mexico... which would you chose to plung into?
With the way the media and the Repubs are forever ranting at our hard working, over loaded" one party " president, I think it would be best if he didn't jump into the Gulf waters and proclaim them safe. If he did the media and the repubs would be all over him the first time someone saw a drop of oil even if it came off of an errant hot dog. Play it cool Mr. President. The other side hasn't learned how to play fair and they don't intend to start now.!
The waters around Panama City are clean and people are swimming there every day and have been all summer. Surely, if the president thinks the government has done enough for all those people, it has done enough for him also and should dive right in with Americans. Didn't he tout all the great clean-up work he has done for the Gulf Coast?
Gee. It sounds like that nice lady from the RNC doesn't like the president. How shocking! Why even bother asking their spokeshater.