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."
oooohh la la....people lighten up! stop hating on the POTUS...the man is fit and looks quite handsome. Yes, we need jobs; but please!!!!!!!
He's swimming with Sasha – not Malia. Malia is still away at camp.
I've lived in FL the last 10 years and I could have told you, the water here is FINE.
Ahh I knew it. Obama can do nothing to appease the right wing conservatives. I commend him for taking the plunge and hanging out with his daughter in the water.
Go in the water, don't go in the water. Be here, be there. He is one man, our president. You would criticize him if he balanced the budget, found a cure for all cancers and stopped all wars. Look inward for the reason. Most of you did not have a problem with former president Bush II spending 40% of his eight years on vacation.
Good for him. Good for Malia. He is a wonderful president. Unfortunately, judging from the previous comments there is no end to ill-will in this country.
Family values folks are talking about dropping BABIES in America. Here is a good man, father and husband, regular guy, having good time with daughter but REPUBLICAN'Ts are not happy. They like Gingrich with 4 wives, Guilliani with more than 5 wives and their friends in Congress with babies, C street and staff girls....
To play with your daughters in the water while pushing you wife (sweatheart) around in the water, YOU HAVE TO BE a VERY GOOD HUSBAND and FATHER. Players can't do it.... Let's celebrate family values when we see them.
Too bad he wasnt down there in La swimming arount three months ago. How much propaganda must we endure!
If he doesn't goes there he doesn't cares about the impact of the oil spill on the lives of Americans...
If he goes there he doesn't cares about the troubles that the USA are facing today and decided to have the luxury of a 'weekend'...
Damned if he does, damned if he doesn't...
Meanwhile, he does what he promised to do (or at least is trying and not denying that he's just trying to) and does it fine...
Our country is in a world of hurt. Careers lost, jobs not available, loosing homes, healthcare &, roads a mess, and so much more. From the topdown starting with our president of the United States, cuts should be made in income and benifits.
Here is another thing an Isamic mosque near ground Zero!!!! What a tragidy!!!! What an insult to America!
It's too bad this "sponger" just didn't float away out to sea. Mr. President, please don't pollute Florida's waters and beaches.
Always looking out for those photo ops: (Credit: White House Photo). Oh well. After all, Mr. NObama is the "Hypocrite-in-Chief".
The stupidest move President NObama has ever made is supporting the "Killers Mosque" in New York. It is my hope that all Americans will not only remember during these upcoming elections, but also remember during the 2012 elections
Well America, the "vacationeer" is just further demonstrating his true colors. Should there be any more doubts about his Moslem leanings? When is this bozo going to really support America?
Hard to believe, but our nations president has "treasoned" the memory of all the people that were needlessly murdered on 9/11. And as usual, and as it always the custom in the NObama family, after he puts his big foot on his big mouth, he tries to explain it all away to the American people. My guess is that he considers all Americans to be too stupid to understand his treasonable ways.
Worst, a good number of Americans will swallow his lies and hypocrisy. And of course, main stream media will again give Mr. NObama a pass.
Lord, please bless America and and most of all, protect our country from this reckless administration.
People who comment that this is a political stunt, not news and that he should be focusing on job creation are really missing the point. People aren't traveling to the Gulf, where they used to eat seafood and visit the beaches, because they don't think its safe. The President's visit, along with eating Gulf seafood with the Saints last week, puts the fact that the Gulf is safe on the front page. It might seem insignificant but this is a huge gesture for people who are out of work on the Gulf. If he makes potential tourists feel more secure, it might encourage them to visit and might put hotel, restaurant and charter boat workers back to work. Just because you don't take the time to analyze his motives doesn't mean its all a pointless political game.
The President is awesome.
If the President DOES come to the gulf, people complain. If the President DOES NOT come to the gulf, people complain. You folks are just negative people that no one can satisfy.
No matter what this President does he still will be critized by republikkans. You're doing the right thing sir. The haters will forever hate. And by way you people who claim you're not racist and have the audacity to pretend to be insulted by such claims get real. You know exactly what you are.
LMAO, what a jackass. Boy I wonder why the President made his way down to the coast and swim in the gulf.
What a great family man. I think he is the best.
You're kidding right? High unemployment, slow economy, over population, world hunger, wars, global warming, gays in the military, illegals invading the country, world terrorist, cancer, obesity (I just have to lose those last 10 pounds. I blame Obama for not doing it sooner),etc., and this president is swimming in the Gulf. My god and we elected this man. Impeach him! Impeach him now.
Nice bod. You go sir!
He's damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't. He just can't win with you idiots. Considering the mess he walked into, thanks to the previous administration, and no thanks to the party of NO blocking everything he tries to do, he's doing the best he can.
Get of that couch and don't be jealous of such a healthy good looking president, with brains yet....
Re:Mark Hudson. Have you been paying any attention to what is going on in the Gulf region? The whole point of Obama going down there AND taking the dip is to do exactly what you're harping about. By sending the message that the Gulf is a safe place to visit, the hope is to save tens of thousands of jobs and restore many of the others. The only foolishness is coming from people who can't seem to get the picture. Hopefully, the next thing we'll see is a photo or video of Obama chowing down on some Gulf-caught seafood if he hasn't done so already.
Our President is working so hard on the things he promised. This is the best president I have ever known. If you run down the list of promises in campaign stops, he has done work on about 40% of them. I am so glad he saved General Motors. Yesterday GM reported the highest profits in years. Ford has surpassed the past five years profits this quarter. The whole upper midwest is car based. That was saved and Obama stood with them. Republicans opposed him. If you voted for McCain you are sorry he isn't fulfilling McCain's promises. Does that really make sense to you?
First, the cynics complained that he didn't choose to vacation on the gulf. Now when he does, they also complain. It goes to show that his detractors will be negative no matter what he does.