President Barack Obama and daughter, Sasha, swim at Alligator Point in Panama City Beach, Florida, on Saturday (PHOTO CREDIT: White House/Pete Souza)
(CNN) – - The one really big question hanging over President Obama's weekend vacation to Panama City, Florida, now has an answer.
Will he or won't he dive into the water to send a message that the Gulf Coast is back?
The answer: He will, and sooner than expected.
"I think we're going to go tomorrow and as I just said Ed, I'm not going to let you guys take a picture of me with my shirt off," Obama jokingly told CNN Saturday. "You guys will tease me just like last time. I was on the front page ... People commenting."
But just hours later, a photo was published on the White House Flickr page showing a smiling President Obama and his daughter Sasha taking a dip in the Gulf waters off Alligator Point in Panama City Beach, Florida.
No reporters or press cameras were present for the swim, but the image will nonetheless send a message that the White House has sought to convey with the first family's trip: the Gulf Coast is open for business.
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. But some are less concerned about Obama ending up on magazine covers, and more worried about the White House sending the right message.
"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.
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."
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 is the president's fifth trip to the Gulf region since the April 20 explosion that sparked the horrific oil disaster. The trip is 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 is 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. Also making the trip is 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."
It surely will send a message!>>> take the lard off...America ..for your health.
Maybe a good tan will do the president some good .
Maybe, just maybe, while he is in the gulf, he can talk about Iraq and Iran, too. How about North Korea? Gee, this is earth-shaking news!!! Glad there's absolutely nothing else happening in this big world of ours.
When the oil is gone the human waste will remain; you can see the oil but you can't see all the other nasties in the water. Get real people.
This is a man walking with a two ton beast of burden riding on his back .
Please spare us this foolishness! The focus should be on creating jobs, not this type of political fluff. And by the way, this stunt won't even garner needed 2010 or 2012 female votes.
I thought that Obama was The Chose One?
If he can walk on water, why would he swim?
What a dumb publicity stunt. Boy, his ratings must suck.
Can we get back to worrying about JOBS! People need jobs.
Panama City? Really? Have him swim anywhere from Gulf Shores, AL west through Louisiana. Lets see if CNN actually says anything about that. Most likely not.
Wow, nice body for a president. I'd like to see Newt in a swimsuit. LOL!
A real boost for the area may have been vacationing on the Gulf Coast instead of Martha's Vineyard. I guess no rich friends have homes there that they want to spend a week or so with. Hopefully they enjoy they're day on the beach!
Obama still has a LONG way to go to tie up with W's vacation days.'
W was on vacation a record 42% of his presidency.
Yes, yes...but will he dare eat any local seafood?!
Man I gotta start workin out.
If he had not gone swimming the idiots would be saying. "He's sending the wrong message"Afraid to swim in the gulf"
Now that he is they will coplain about that too.
Memo to POTUS: Stop trying to please the 25% who hate you , hate America, think there is no global warming, the world is flat, Bush was the best ever....etc.
Just do what you think is best and let them wallow in it. I know George W felt the same way about people like me. Of course we were right and they are wrong.
This reminds me of the Simpsons episode when Monty Burns ran for governor and was forced to eat the three eyed fish before the cameras.
Let him and his family enjoy their vacation. He is no different than any other President or us. We all enjoy the Gulf of Mexico and those white sandy beaches.
He is in the gulf but not in the gulf later when he is in Martha's vineyard, he is for the mosque, but not for the wisdom to build it...he voted "present" throughout is mediocre career as a state legislator, and continue not to take sides when he is the commander in chief! Decisions are hard and people who have made them under pressure know this, and the job turned out to be much more than smiling, campaigning and reading speeches!!!
Part of a vacation, to martha's vinyard next, this is his 5th MAJOR vacation since JULY, pathetic!!! Obama is the WORST president this country HAS EVER HAD!!! We are more divided as a people than ever. of course this was his plan all along so he could devise new govt programs to "FIX" everything...
President Obama is presenting a good image by doing a swim in the Gulf. Plus it does not hurt that he is in great shape. Take a hint America and get your fat bodies to work.
If he can run our great country and find time to stay in shape then I guess the rest of the fat Americans could get off the couch and do the same.
the well is capped....the summer tourist season is almost over and obama decides to go to the beach in the gulf. to me....this is too little too late. as always...just like his presidency has been. wonder if his wife took a dip in the gulf waters.....she seemed to like the waters in spain. it is a time for change...obama's own words will come back and haunt him in november....
I was reading another article about the Obama visit to the Gulf region and the comments were just horrible. This President took office with a big mess on the desk when he walked in the door and he is working at all of it day in and day out. They biggest problem is jobs and to be honest, there is only so much he can do about them. Companies have gone over seas for cheaper labor and the President cannot order them back to the USA. Only we, the citizens can do that. We must stop buying from companies that produce outside of the USA until they return to our shores. The Depression of 1934 lasted about 10 years before things were back close to normal and Americans are such an impatient lot that they expect this depression to over and everything back to normal in 18 to 20 months. Well people I hate to bust your bubble but it ain't gonna happen..
Now we need to stop being such obstructionist and work with this President to make our country great again. Republicans have taken a vow to obstruct everything President Obama wants to do and that means they have no problem with seeing this country fail as long as they regain power. Those are not the kind of people I want incharge of my country. Please people, try to be more positive and work with the President. If you do that, we will make it. I know we will. In fact, I promise you we will make it if we all work together. I don't care if you don't like the President. Just work with him for the sake of the survival of our country.
I totally agree with the writer who states that these comments against the president ,while not only being outright lies or simply stupidity of the writers and total lack of fact, have a similarity of structure and verbage to look pre planned in attempt to discredit our president. Well, I have news for you, it has been to my surprise that a lot of people I talk to are getting sick of the put downs and saying they know how to end it with a strong DEMOCRATIC vote in November. Are you all so dumb that you never noticed in school that a lot of the kids would come to the support of the one that was being shoved around?. Repubs, you're over playing your hand and you'll be surprised at the results in November.
Perhaps a stunt, but a well-intentioned and meaningful stunt. He's the President and can go anywhere for vacation and he chose Panama City of all places – certainly a first for a President. He showed there's nothing wrong with the beaches or the water. People will notice.
What would you have said if he didn't go? Where's Sarah?
When he can safely take a dip in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran too, THEN I'll feel relieved.
– doesn't have to be water. Dust bath is fine.
Thank God, CNN provided two stories on the simy corrupt, inept, union toady on yet another taxpayer funded vacation. I can't afford one myself, gotta work. Haven't got a slimy, corrupt unon backing like this idiot.