President Joe Biden is heading to Florida on Saturday for a firsthand look at Hurricane Idalia’s destruction, but he won’t be seeing the state’s Republican governor and 2024 presidential hopeful, Ron DeSantis, who suggested such a meeting could hinder disaster response efforts.
“We don’t have any plans for the governor to meet with the president,” DeSantis spokesman Jeremy Redfern said in a statement. “In these rural communities, and so soon after impact, the security preparations alone that would go into setting up such a meeting would shut down ongoing recovery efforts.”
Idalia made landfall Wednesday morning along Florida’s sparsely populated Big Bend region as a Category 3 storm, causing widespread flooding and damage before moving north to drench Georgia and the Carolinas. But Biden’s visit to see its effects threatened to be engulfed by political clashes since DeSantis’ statement came hours after the president himself earlier Friday that he would be meeting with the governor.
In response to DeSantis eventually preemptively calling off a meeting, White House spokeswoman Emilie Simons said, “President Biden and the first lady look forward to meeting members of the community impacted by Hurricane Idalia and surveying impacts of the storm.”
“Their visit to Florida has been planned in close coordination” with Federal Emergency Management personnel “as well as state and local leaders to ensure there is no impact on response operations,” Simons said in a statement.
After landing at the airport in Gainesville, Biden is set for an aerial tour on his way to Live Oak for an afternoon briefing on response and recovery efforts and a meeting with federal and local officials and first responders. He then plans to see firsthand the storm’s effect on the community and will make remarks afterward.
The political disconnect between both sides is a break from the recent past, since Biden and DeSantis met when the president toured Florida after Hurricane Ian hit the state last year, and following the Surfside condo collapse in Miami Beach in summer 2021. But DeSantis is now running to unseat Biden, and he only left the Republican presidential primary trail with Idalia barreling toward his state.
Putting aside political rivalries following natural disasters can be tricky, meanwhile.
Another 2024 presidential candidate, former Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, has long been widely criticized in GOP circles for embracing then-President Barack Obama during a tour of damage 2012’s Hurricane Sandy did to his state. Christie was even asked about the incident last month, during the first Republican presidential debate.
Both Biden and DeSantis at first suggested that helping storm victims would outweigh partisan differences. But the governor began suggesting that a presidential trip would complicate response logistics as the week wore on.
“There’s a time and a place to have political season,” the governor said before Idalia made landfall. “But then there’s a time and a place to say that this is something that’s life threatening, this is something that could potentially cost somebody their life, it could cost them their livelihood.”
By Friday, the governor was telling reporters of Biden, “one thing I did mention to him on the phone” was “it would be very disruptive to have the whole security apparatus that goes” with the president “because there are only so many ways to get into” many of the hardest hit areas.
“What we want to do is make sure that the power restoration continues and the relief efforts continue and we don’t have any interruption in that,” DeSantis said.
Biden joked while delivering pizzas to workers at FEMA’s Washington headquarters on Thursday that he’d spoken to DeSantis so frequently about Idalia that “there should be a direct dial” between the pair. Homeland Security adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall pointed to the experiences after Ian and Surfside collapse in saying earlier this week that Biden and DeSantis “are very collegial when we have the work to do together of helping Americans in need, citizens of Florida in need.”
The post-Idalia political consequences are high for both men.
As Biden seeks reelection, the White House has asked for an additional $4 billion to address natural disasters as part of its supplemental funding request to Congress. That would bring the total to $16 billion and highlight that wildfires, flooding and hurricanes have intensified during a period of climate change, imposing ever higher costs on U.S. taxpayers.
DeSantis has built his White House bid around dismantling what he calls Democrats’ “woke” policies. The governor also frequently draws applause at GOP rallies by declaring that it’s time to send “Joe Biden back to his basement,” a reference to the Democrat’s Delaware home, where he spent much of his time during the early lockdowns of the coronavirus pandemic.
But four months before the first ballots are to be cast in Iowa’s caucuses, DeSantis still lags far behind former President Donald Trump, the Republican primary’s dominant early front-runner. And he has cycled through repeated campaign leadership shakeups and reboots of his image in an attempt to refocus his message.
The super PAC supporting DeSantis’ candidacy also has halted its door-knocking operations in Nevada, which votes third on the Republican presidential primary calendar, and several states holding Super Tuesday primaries in March — a further sign of trouble.
Will Weissert, The Associated Press