PANAMA CITY — President Barack Obama and his family cruised the waters off their Florida Panhandle hotel on Sunday, offering a portrait of a family on vacation to boost a region struggling with the economic damage wrought by the nation's worst oil spill.
The Obamas boarded the 50-foot Bay Point Lady on a rainy, overcast morning, the second and final day of a weekend getaway during which the president assured residents that his administration would not forget the region even after oil stopped spewing from a broken oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. The family returned to Washington on Sunday afternoon.
With first lady Michelle Obama and 9-year-old daughter Sasha beside him, Obama leaned over the bow of the Bay Point Lady to watch porpoises as their boat cut through the calm waters of St. Andrews Bay. Back on shore, the family stopped for treats — mint chocolate chip ice cream for the president, Oreo ice cream for Sasha, and a hot fudge sundae without whipped cream for the first lady — before heading home.
The Obamas' 12-year-old daughter, Malia, didn't make the trip because she's away at summer camp.
Obama's 27-hour trip to the Gulf region was his fifth since oil started fouling Gulf waters following an April 20 explosion on an offshore rig operated by oil giant BP. Though the well is no longer leaking, he emphasized that the government's work in the region is far from over.
"I'm here to tell you that our job is not finished and we are not going anywhere until it is," Obama said Saturday.
Much of the long-term recovery efforts in the Gulf will focus on restoring the region's economy, which in areas like the Florida Panhandle is heavily dependent on tourism. Most of the region's beaches stayed open throughout the spill, yet many potential visitors stayed away, apparently deterred by images of oil-slicked waters and tarball-strewn beaches in other parts of the region.
While both the president and the first lady encouraged Americans to take their summer vacations on the Gulf Coast, they were criticized for not following their own advice, instead traveling to North Carolina and Maine and planning a trip later this month to Martha's Vineyard. Mrs. Obama also took Sasha to Spain.
The White House hoped images from the weekend jaunt to the Gulf would end that criticism. To the delight of locals, Obama took Sasha for a dip Saturday, a signal to other would-be Gulf vacationers that the water and the beaches are fine
The president's swim happened out of sight of the news media. The White House released an official photo, but The Associated Press does not publish such handout images. According to the White House, the Obamas swam off Alligator Point, which is in Saint Andrews Bay, not the Gulf.