‘Our Job Is Not Finished,’ President Tells Gulf Coast

PANAMA CITY, Fla. — President Obama on Saturday called the capping of the well that has spewed tens of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico “an important milestone,” but vowed to maintain an intense government response until the environment is cleaned up and businesses and communities are made whole.

“Today, the well is capped, oil is no longer flowing into the gulf, and it has not been flowing for a month,” Mr. Obama said at a Coast Guard district station here, with cutters behind him and his wife, Michelle. “But I’m here to tell you that our job is not finished, and we are not going anywhere until it is.”

The Obamas and their daughter Sasha — their older daughter, Malia, is away at camp — arrived here on Saturday morning, along with their dog, Bo, for a one-night stay in a summer in which their leisure pursuits have kicked up national confusion over what is appropriate for an American president and his family.

The trip, intended by the White House to spotlight the oil-stricken Gulf Coast as a recreational venue, was planned after Mr. Obama and his wife urged Americans to vacation here, only to make their own vacation plans for Maine and Martha’s Vineyard.

(And that was before Mrs. Obama and Sasha jetted off to the coast of Spain for a mother-daughter trip that has been criticized as too luxurious during a recession.)

Perhaps metaphorically for a president who has been through a rough patch, the skies here were gray and rainy when Air Force One landed — not an especially appealing backdrop for Mr. Obama, who had intended to encourage vacationers to sample the gulf seafood and beaches. But by the time the president spoke, the sun had broken through, and he made his pitch.

“Beaches all along the Gulf Coast are clean, safe and open for business,” Mr. Obama said. He said he wanted to let “fellow Americans know that they should come on down here,” adding, “Not just to support the region, but also because it’s a beautiful place to visit.”

For the president, and to a lesser extent for Mrs. Obama, the trip is a working vacation. As soon as Air Force One touched down Saturday morning, the first couple went to the Coast Guard headquarters for a round-table discussion with local business leaders and government officials, including a hotel owner and a fishing boat captain who spoke of declining revenues in the months since the spill.

“I’m going to spend most of my time, Michelle is going to spend most of her time, listening and getting suggestions and recommendations from you,” the president told them.

The trip was a somewhat delicate one for Mr. Obama. Although he wants to take credit for the government response and the capping of the well, he can ill afford to declare “mission accomplished.” In his remarks, the president vowed to maintain the government’s focus on removing any oil that might surface; testing fisheries and reopening waters for fishing as soon as tests show they are safe; leaning on BP to quickly process claims; and developing a long-term restoration plan for the gulf.

The brief speech concluded the working portion of the trip; the big question on Saturday morning here was what the Obamas would do for fun. In the afternoon, the family had lunch at Lime’s Bayside Bar & Grill at the end of a long pier. Later they played miniature golf.

But Mr. Obama faced a presidential dilemma: whether to go swimming. To stay out of the water would have suggested it was unsafe, undercutting the message of his trip. To take the plunge might have resulted in photographs of him shirtless, causing a controversy like the one that dogged him in 2008 after he went bodysurfing in Hawaii.

The White House solved the problem by allowing only its own photographer to take pictures of the president swimming. The photo it released showed Mr. Obama enjoying the surf — from the neck up.

The Panama City visit is short, planned for just 27 hours; the family expected to return to Washington on Sunday evening, and on Monday Mr. Obama will set off for a three-day cross-country fund-raising swing.

When he returns, he will head to Massachusetts for his real vacation: 10 days on Martha’s Vineyard.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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