President Obama on Saturday promised Gulf Coast residents that the federal government won't abandon them once efforts to stop the oil spill are finished.
"I'm here to tell you that our job is not finished and we are not going anywhere until it is," Obama said at a Coast Guard Station in this Florida Panhandle city.
The president, first lady, daughter Sasha (sister Malia is at summer camp) and family dog Bo visited the Sunshine State for a brief weekend trip -- part vacation, part sales pitch -- as the president sought to boost a tourism industry reeling after the spill.
On a warm, muggy afternoon, Obama said he brought his family to Florida, "to let our fellow Americans know that they should come down here. It is spectacular. And not just to support the region, but also because it's a beautiful place to visit."
It was his fifth trip to the region since April 20 explosion on a deepwater rig that caused the spill. Obama said he knows Gulf Coast residents have been frustrated by the slow payment of claims from a $20 billion BP fund for those who have suffered damages as a result of the spill, and he pledged to rectify that.
"Any delays -- by BP or by those managing the new fund -- are unacceptable, and I will keep pushing to get these claims expedited," Obama said.
Perhaps the most intriguing question of the Obamas' 27-hour dash south was whether the president would take a dip in the Gulf.
The president and first lady were joined at a roundtable discussion by Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, a former Mississippi governor appointed by Obama to develop a long-term Gulf restoration plan; the mayors of Panama City and Panama City Beach; the general manager of a three-hotel chain that has had 1,000 room night cancellations due to the spill, translating into more than $191,000 in lost room revenue alone; the owner of a charter boat company; and the co-owner of a restaurant and two fishing boats.
Tourism officials say the region typically brings in 70 percent of its yearly income between June and August. Although only 16 of the 180 beaches in the western part of the Panhandle were affected by the spill, tourism officials say many potential visitors have stayed away, deterred by images of oil-slicked waters and tarball-strewn beaches in other parts of the region.
The head of the U.S. Travel Association has proposed that BP, responsible for the oil spill, set aside $500 million for a marketing campaign to help draw tourists to the Gulf states.
Alabama's attorney general on Thursday sued BP and others companies associated with the spill, seeking unspecified economic and punitive damages. At least 300 federal lawsuits have been filed in 12 states against BP and the other three main companies involved in the explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drill rig.
The White House scheduled the Obamas' trip after facing criticism that the president wasn't heeding his own advice that Americans vacation in the Gulf.
"This is still a place that's open for business and welcoming so vacationers and people can have a wonderful holiday here," Obama said during a June trip to Pensacola, Fla. -- one of his four to the region before this weekend.
The first lady went a step further during a July visit to Panama City Beach. "One of the best ways that fellow Americans can help is to come on down here and spend some money," she said.
Obama has vacationed in North Carolina this summer and is heading to Martha's Vineyard, off the Massachusetts coast, later in August. Mrs. Obama also traveled to Spain this month with Sasha.
The government's point man on the spill, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, said Friday that the blown-out well was not securely plugged to his satisfaction. He said that drilling a relief well -- long regarded as the only way to ensure that the hole at the bottom of the Gulf never leaks oil again -- must go forward.
Work on the relief well was suspended this week because of bad weather.