Obama makes fourth, and longest, Gulf visit

By Steve Holland

THEODORE, Alabama (BestGrowthStock) – Sweat beading on his face, President Barack Obama saw up close on Monday the environmental and economic toll from the massive oil spill that is posing one of the biggest challenges of his presidency.

Accused by his critics of not taking charge of the U.S. response to the disaster, Obama made his fourth — and longest — visit to the Gulf of Mexico region.

He saw oil booms lining the Alabama coast of Mobile Bay, met Mississippi business owners suffering from a drought in tourist dollars and offered words of encouragement to workers who were cleaning and patching booms in suffocating heat.

He heard worries about whether BP is paying economic damage claims as quickly as needed and said Americans who want to help the region recover can do so by going ahead with travel plans because a lot of beaches are unaffected.

“We just want to make sure that people who have travel plans to the Gulf area remain mindful of that,” Obama said.

Already grappling with the worst recession since the Great Depression, Obama is finding his agenda overtaken by the oil spill.

At every stop he made a point of saying it will take a long time for the region to return to normal from what he called “an ongoing assault whose movements are constantly changing.”

“It’s going to be painful for a lot of folks. Folks are going to be frustrated, and some folks are going to be angry,” he said. “This region that’s known a lot of hardship will bounce back, just like it’s bounced back before.”

Some local people had mixed reactions to Obama’s visit.

“It is going to be the same old thing. He is going to say he cares about us and will form a new committee to over see the committee overseeing the first committee,” said Randy Kurtts, a city councilman in the Alabama coastal town of Elberta.

Others were glad he was there.

“I am nauseated. I am saddened. I am concerned not just about the visual but what is under the surface. I am happy he is here. He will do what it takes to make it right. I am satisfied,” said beach front property owner Tommy Spina in Fort Morgan, Alabama.

In Gulfport, Mississippi, the president spent more time with Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour than he has throughout the 56-day crisis.

Barbour, a potential 2012 Republican presidential candidate, has played down the effects of the oil spill on his state’s coastline, which was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Obama and Barbour sat down for sandwiches together with local business owners on Ken Combs’ Pier, a structure built out from startlingly white beaches that locals said have far fewer tourists than normal this year.

Missy Bennett, owner of the Edgewater Inn hotel, told Obama her business is down 40 percent from normal due to the spill.

He and Barbour set aside whatever political differences they have to each enjoy a “snow cone,” a cupful of ice soaked with a flavored syrup, a beach favorite.

“I think I’ll have a lemon-lime,” Obama said.

“That’s something else we agree on,” said Barbour.

A helicopter ride later, Obama was in Theodore, Alabama, where workers wearing yellow protective garb and hard hats washed clean and placed rubber patches on booms that had been used in the Gulf against the spreading oil.

At day’s end, Obama rode the Marissa Mae Nicole ferry from Dauphin Island, which has seen some tar balls from the spill.

He and his entourage fetched up at Tacky Tack’s waterside restaurant in Orange Beach, Alabama, for a meal of crawfish tails, crab claws, ribs and seafood salad.

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(Additional reporting by Verna Gates in Mobile, Alabama; editing by Chris Wilson)

Obama makes fourth, and longest, Gulf visit