WASHINGTON — A family trip to a Gulf Coast beach in mid-August swelter, after the worst accidental oil spill in history? Call it the vacation the Obamas feel obliged to take before they can enjoy the vacation they want.
Since May, President Barack Obama has been imploring other Americans not to abandon Gulf tourism because of the BP spill. He's insisted that most beaches are fine and the seafood is safe to eat.
Now Obama is walking the walk. Well, more like speed-walking.
He, his wife, Michelle, and their daughter Sasha, will fly Saturday morning to Panama City, Fla. Daughter Malia remains at summer camp and won't make the trip, though family dog Bo will go. They'll spend the night, but they aren't exactly lingering. They're scheduled to depart Sunday afternoon.
Later next week, the first family will head northeast for a 10-day respite on Martha's Vineyard, the island off Massachusetts — the real vacation they've been planning for months.
The family's scheduled Panama City stops and photo-ops weren't released in advance, except for the president's plan to hold a roundtable discussion with small business owners. Neither was the answer to a question widely asked along the coast: Will the president swim in the Gulf of Mexico , thereby demonstrating his confidence in the safety of the waters?
For large swaths of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida where seafood and tourism drive the economy, the oil spill forced some beach closures, stopped much fishing and food production, and broadly affected public perception.
Amid tar ball sightings and concerns over what toxins are lurking out there in the water — and how risky they are for humans — the economy suffered even in coastal spots that the spill never appeared to reach.
"Tourism in Florida and along the Gulf Coast is the economy," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said. "This is an opportunity to highlight the notion that this important region of the country is still doing well and open for business."
The president and his wife each have made day trips to the Gulf Coast. The White House served Gulf shrimp at a private birthday fete last weekend for the president. Still, local boosters said a full family visit with the girls would be a more personal endorsement.
"I think it'll be enormously helpful, the kind of spotlight it puts on," said Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who was among those courting an Obama family trip. "Whether they have the opportunity to go to the beach or go fishing . . . I think he can help tourism."
Obama wasn't expected to engage in any political fundraising or candidate promotion this weekend, though he'll be back in Florida on Wednesday before his family leaves for Martha's Vineyard.
While Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are firmly in the Republican camp, some important Florida races are in play.
In the U.S. Senate race, Obama is backing Rep. Kendrick Meek in the Aug. 24 Democratic primary over billionaire Jeff Greene.
However, polls find that the general election front-runner is neither a Republican nor a Democrat, but rather the outgoing governor, Crist, who switched from Republican to independent after his party faithful made it clear that they didn't consider him sufficiently conservative.
Crist, for his part, is courting Democrats and has plenty of praise for Obama.
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