PENSACOLA, Fla. — Hours before President Barack Obama was to address the nation, he came to Florida's ground zero on the Gulf oil spill crisis and pledged that his administration would do "whatever it takes" to deal with the mess.
"This isn't just an environmental disaster," Obama said to a crowd inside a hangar at the Pensacola Naval Air Station. "For many families and communities, it's an economic disaster."
"Those plumes of oil are off the coast. The fishing waters are closed. Tar balls have been coming ashore," Obama said. "And everybody is bracing for more."
After a morning briefing on Pensacola Beach, Obama spoke to hundreds of service personnel. He donned a dark-colored blazer after the stop on the beach and was greeted by often-raucous applause as he spoke.
Throughout the speech, those in the crowd took pictures with cell phones and cameras. After he finished, the president spent several minutes shaking hands.
During his talk, Obama commended efforts of those from all branches of the military who are working to battle the spill. Echoing his speeches the day before in Alabama and Mississippi, he emphasized that the beaches in Pensacola remain open.
"People need to know that Pensacola is open for business," said Obama, who earlier visited the Fish Sandwich Snack Bar, which has lost about 40 percent of its business because many people think the beaches are closed.
At the snack bar, Obama said he wanted every businessperson in Florida to know that he would be "their fierce advocate" to ensure that they'll get compensation.
"So the key right now is just to make sure that people ... are helped, that they're able to get through what's going to be a tough time," the president said.
Earlier, in a blue shirt and black pants, Obama walked the white sandy beach with Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who's coordinating the response to the oil spill.
Three boats and some bathers could be seen out in the water, glistening in the sun.
Down the beach, some 200 yards away, a knot of people chanted, "Save our beach. Save our beach."
Obama was on the second day of his fourth trip to the region since the spill began on April 22.
Since the April 20 explosion, millions of gallons of crude oil and chemical dispersants have been unleashed on the Gulf. The oil is slowly making its way to the Florida coast and already has materialized in the form of gooey tar, weathered oil and sheens on the water.
In Tallahassee, the state Republican Party called the president's actions too little, too late and too remote.
Rather than address the nation "from the comfort of the Oval Office," Florida GOP chairman John Thrasher said in a release, Obama "should have mounted the courage to give his address to the nation facing those impacted across the Gulf region."
Thrasher called the president's two-day trip to the Gulf a "public relations endeavor," but he expressed the hope that it would produce "a concrete plan to address this disaster, rather than a two-day photo opportunity at the expense of the American taxpayer."
After Obama's motorcade left Pensacola Beach's Crowne Plaza Hotel, a handful of people gathered along the route, and one had a sign declaring, "Thanks for your support, Mr. President. You still have mine."
His route took him past people lining the roadway, with booms clearly visible in the distance.
As the motorcade passed, one protester held up a sign directed at BP and its president, Tony Hayward: "Kick Tony's ass for us," it said.
(Lebovich, Boodhoo and Rosenberg report for The Miami Herald.)
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