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Obama, daughter swim in Gulf in act of reassurance

US President Barack Obama receives a hug from daughter Sasha as First Lady Michelle Obama (R) looks on upon arrival at the landing zone on August 14, 2010 in Panama City, Florida. Obama is traveling to Florida's Gulf Coast this weekend for a family trip intended to show solidarity with a region struggling in the wake of a massive oil spill. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Staff Writers
Panama City, Florida (AFP) Aug 15, 2010
US President Barack Obama and his daughter have taken a dip in the Gulf of Mexico in an attempt to reassure Americans that, despite a massive oil spill, its waters remain safe for tourists.

The president, First Lady Michelle Obama, and their younger daughter, Sasha, traveled to this Florida panhandle city to talk to local officials and business leaders, and highlight the region's tourist attractions.

"Oil is no longer flowing into the Gulf," said Obama, speaking at a regional US Coast Guard headquarters.

"But I'm here to tell you that our job is not finished, and we are not going anywhere until it is."

Obama said that he wanted to deliver the message directly to residents of the Gulf Coast, which he has visited four times since an April explosion on a BP-leased oil rig triggered the disaster.

"I made a commitment in my visits here that I was going to stand with you... until you have fully recovered from the damage that has been done. And that is a commitment my administration is going to keep," he said.

And Obama also demanded that BP speed up processing of compensation claims, saying that "any delays -- by BP or by those managing the new fund -- are unacceptable."

Earlier this week BP made its first deposit into the 20-billion-dollar Gulf of Mexico oil disaster fund intended to compensate thousands of residents and businesses hit by the largest maritime oil spill of all time.

During the height of the spill Obama urged his fellow Americans to continue taking vacations in the region, famous for its sugar-white beaches, and heavily dependent on tourism.

Obama later went for a swim with Sasha at Panama City Beach, away from the public and press cameras, with only an official photo of the pair -- heads bobbing just above the water line -- issued by the White House.

While the image might go far to reassure Americans that Gulf waters are safe, Obama had stressed he would take a presidential plunge in private.

The last time Obama, who is physically fit, was photographed swimming without a shirt was in December 2008, shortly before he took office. The pictures were broadly circulated and used on the cover of news magazines.

When a reporter covering the Obamas' Florida vacation joked that this publicity was a good thing, Michelle Obama shook her head and said, "No, it's not."

The president and his family are scheduled to return to Washington on Sunday.

The trip comes after US officials announced that energy giant BP's runaway well had been sealed, and that they were moving ahead with plans to make sure it is truly "killed" by pumping cement in through a relief well under the Gulf of Mexico.

Pressure tests showed that the well no longer has "direct communication with the reservoir" thanks to a "top kill" operation which pumped drilling mud and cement down through the wellhead, US spill chief Thad Allen said.

Allen on Saturday issued a directive for BP to run a new series of tests and provide plans to ensure the safety of the "bottom kill" operation, before he gives the green light for a relief well to resume drilling.

The relief well, which is approximately 100 feet (30 meters) short of intersecting the well bore, was delayed several days because of a storm. Once it resumes, the bottom kill operation is expected to take four days.

The huge spill threatened the fish and wildlife-rich Gulf Coast with environmental ruin and plunged residents of coastal communities into months of anguish over their livelihoods and the region's future.

The week after his Florida sojourn, Obama is scheduled for a multi-stop trip around the United States, starting in Wisconsin, where he is to visit factories specializing in renewable energy production and fund-raise for Democrats.

Monday evening will see him in Los Angeles for another fundraising event, before he heads to the northwestern state of Washington on Tuesday for a meeting on health care reform in Seattle, the White House said.

Later this month the First Family is scheduled to vacation in Martha's Vineyard, an elite Massachusetts resort island, in the US northeast.

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