GRAND ISLE, La. - Intent on showing firm command of a deepening Gulf Coast crisis, President Barack Obama inspected a fouled beach, took in what he called "heartbreaking stories" of the catastrophe and declared "we're going to keep at it" until the America's largest-ever oil spill is stopped and cleaned up.
"It's an assault on our shores, on our people, on the regional economy and on communities like this one," said Obama, from this small barrier island town threatened by the massive oil leak. "People are watching their livelihoods wash up on the beach."
With more than 20,000 people already working to contain and clean up the still-gushing crude, Obama announced he was tripling the manpower in places where oil has washed ashore or is about to.
"This is our highest priority and it deserves a response that is equal to the task," he said at a shoreside podium in front of a stretch of sparkling blue, unmarred water. Dolphins and fish could be seen gliding through the water and seabirds frequently fluttered past.
Obama made a promise to coast residents reminiscent of previous presidents speaking after disasters -- such as George W. Bush after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"I'm here to tell you that you are not alone, you will not be abandoned, you will not be left behind," Obama said. "The media may get tired of the story, but we will not. We will be on your side and we will see this through."
He came armed with specific advice for beleaguered locals and the concerned U.S. public.
Acknowledging that storm-battered coastal states have "weathered your fair share of trials and tragedy," he directed those in the region who are filing claims for damages to count on the government -- state and federal -- to help cut any red tape. He was joined by the governors of Louisiana, Florida and Alabama.
To the public at large, he pleaded for volunteers to join the cleanup and for tourists to flock to the majority of the region's coastline that is untouched.
"One of the most powerful ways you can help the Gulf right now is to visit the coast," the president said.
Rising criticism has been increasingly aimed at Obama and his administration, as crude has continued to spew after an oil rig exploded and sank April 20.
"It's a dog and pony show. What can he really do?" Billy Ward, who comes to his beach house here every weekend, said of Obama's trip. "If he wants to do something, let him get out there and pump some mud and cement into that hole. Just fix it. Help us."
Amid fears the tragedy could engulf his presidency, Obama has launched a more aggressive effort this week to demonstrate that he is engaged.
On Thursday, Obama held a rare White House news conference, saying "I take responsibility" for handling the spill response and acknowledging his team could have done better on several fronts.
On Friday, he flew to the coast for an inspection tour and meetings that lasted about four hours -- his second visit in the 39 days of the crisis.
His first stop was a beach where absorbent booms and sandbags have been laid for miles to try to keep more oil from washing ashore. A shirt-sleeved Obama walked down Fourchon Beach to the water's edge, stooping as Adm. Thad Allen of the Coast Guard explained what he was seeing.
Obama called reporters traveling with him to the water's edge and picked up a few pebble-sized tar balls. No other oil was visible. He expressed optimism that such tarballs are easily cleaned up, but emphasized the larger challenge.
"Obviously the concern is that, until we actually stop the flow, we've got problems," the president said.
Obama then went for a formal briefing from Allen, who is overseeing the spill response for the federal government. At intervals along the drive were handwritten wooden signs stuck in the sand with "BEACH CLOSED" in black block letters. One woman held up a sign saying "Clean Up the Gulf."
Early in the morning in advance of the president's arrival, hundreds of workers clad in white jump suits and rubber gloves hit the beaches to dig oily debris from the sand and haul it off. Workers refused to say who hired them, telling a reporter only they were told to keep quiet or lose their jobs.
BP PLC is using what is called a "top kill" procedure to try to stop the leak by pumping in heavy mud. If it doesn't work, something BP says will be known within a couple of days, Obama's political problems will only compound.
Asked as he was walking off if he was confident in the latest fix attempt, the president demurred. "All I can say is we've got the best minds working on it, and we're going to keep on at it."
Locals suffering the effects of the oil that is covering birds and darkening beaches didn't see much coming from Obama's visit.
"He's wasting his time," said Larry Freman as he cleaned around his vacation home in Grand Isle, an area usually packed with tourists for the holiday.
Ward, a developer from Port Allen, was in the midst of building a gated fishing community here when the oil rig exploded. "We can't build this development not knowing if there's going to be any fishing here ever again," he said.
"I like the man, but I personally feel he's only here to please everybody," said Virginia Smith.