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."
President Obama leads by example. By far the best President ever.
This will come to be his "Mission Accomplished" moment... ie not live it down. You & your child swimming in Chemical dispersant & oil....
not very wise. This kind of photo op makes me sick.
Someone should have told the president the US Fish & Wildlife dept collected 241 dead birds, 9 dead Sea Turtles & 2 mammals (dolphins?) just in this last week alone.
4080 dead birds
525 dead Sea Turtles
72 Mammals (including Dolphins)
This is stupid act fooling no one except himself. Queen Michele goes to Spain for a week at significant taxpayer expense for a lavish 5-star vacation, and then they vacation at the Gulf for one day. This really makes a statement to me about priorities.
Just like his announcement of support for the Mosque, when is the last time these people supported anything that is Christian or American? Wake up America, this guy is not as smart as Jimmy Carter and is at best a fool, and at worst trying to tear down this great country. Remember after the November 2010 that elections do have consequences.
No matter what he does it won't be right for some of the people on this post. The weight he has on his shoulders trying to correct the way this country has been headed is horrid and it's going to take awhile to right the ship that has been listing so bad in the last 8 years.
Enjoy your family President Obama you are working hard for the country and most of us are smart enough to know it.
I actually enjoy going to the gulf coast for vacation. However this president must be pressured into visiting the area that Queen Michelle told the rest of us we should be visiting. Hurry kids, get in the water, take a few pictures and then it's off to our next vacation. Ten days at Martha's Vineyard, one at the Gulf Coast, yep, got his priorities in order. The only upside to this whole thing is that he probably won't be signing any legisilation while he's there. I am so ready for a new president. We definitely got a lemon on this one.
Absolutely nothing will make the teatards happy-he vacations in Maine, and they think he should have gone to the Gulf. He goes to the Gulf, and now he's not focusing on Irag and Jobs. Pathetic.
Maybe now that he's had a good swim, he can get back to fixing this country nearly destroyed by the previous administration. Jobs, jobs, jobs.
Give the guy a break. There is someplace in America today that is experiencing storms, lots of rain, lots of heat, oil, tornados. How can he be everywhere? He has done a lot more traveling to desperate places than Bush ever did and also keep in mind it costs us taxpayers a fortune every time he leaves the White House. Everyone wants him to visit their little moment of hell to show that he cares. I have no doubt that he has sympathy for everyone going through hard times but the guy has a family and can't visit 50 states in 50 days to look at everyone's catastrophe. Each state is responsible for their own, as they prove each time a federal regulation leaches into their state governance and they protest.
Well I hope all those ugly comment makers out there will shut up now! Y'all said that he wouldn't swim in the Gulf, well eat your words! Y'all will never be happy with our President, he's doing better than the last one who got us into all the disaster President Obama is trying to fix!
Is leatherman, going to get in the water? The more I watch this president, the more I despise the american media. It's like they're trying to ruin the country for fun.
two years in and everyone's turned on him, man, you guys are fickle!
(Not to mention, selfish and irresponsible)
I'd like to see the media take their kids swimming in the gulf now, please.
Sure – he swims in the waters of Panama CIty. No oil there. Why doesn't he swim in the waters of Gulf Shores/Orange Beach, Mississippi, or Louisiana? Too many dispersants or too much oil still in the water? Get real...another photo op.
those who are criticizing this as political fanfare are probably the same who criticized him for not doing it. Can't win with the party of no–the party intent on tearing apart the government and nation.
Damnit Obama is such in a better shape than me. How does he manage that? He has all these responsibilities and things to do. He has all that stress. Life is not fair!!!
Shameful how so many people hate that the President is having some family time in a crisis where the crisis occurred and it is not his fault the media is sooooooooooooooooo obsessed with covering the small stuff. It makes it look like he isn't "in the know " about what's going on-it's not like GW Bush who took endless vacations and was never photog'd this much. Get a life and let Obama be a Dad and a private citizen occasionally.
I haven't seen any Pubs stripping down and jumping into the water to prove the point. Until that happens, those like Ms Henneberg need to evalute their expectations of others and start putting a positive spin on what the president is doing instead of always looking for something negative. All that shows is how truly out of touch they are to reality and the desires of the voters.
I heard he peed in the water and that Michelle did a #2.
Go swim in Pelosi's swamp where you belong Bozo! We already have enough polution in the Gulf!
A token day plus hours sends what message? Spend a photo day at the Gulf and spend your real vacation elsewhere.
So if he didnt swim or say anything about it....then you all would be criticizing him he DOESN'T care about the situation in the gulf. Nobody is ever happy. *sigh*
This is a shame.For the press to spend it's time trying to spin a story about the president getting into the gulf waters when you should be reporting stories concerning issues in the news that are of more concern.Why is it so important for the president to throw his support behind building a masque at ground zero of 9/11?Poor decision and not favored by most Americans .
The right-wingers are filled with nothing but hate, so much hate it has led to insanity. They are truly horrible inviduals who have more than secured their rightful place in Hell.
Good to see the President in the Gulf. It shows he's not afraid of the water. I sure the republicans will find something in the water to be afraid of and make American afraid for the mid-terms. Remember America, you can't be a good republican without a good dose of fear!
Sorry, individuals, not inviduals. Damn Blackberry!
Why didnt Obama go to Louisana where the the oil spill originated?Again trying to make himself look good. and not facing up to how serious the problem really is. Some president
Who really cares what he does anymore? Doesn't mean a thing!