Normally, disaster politics dictates that a president and a governor from opposing parties come together to show victims of a natural disaster — and potential voters across the country — that they care.
These are not normal times.
On Friday, a spokesman for Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, a Republican seeking his party’s nomination for president, said the governor had no plans to meet with President Biden on Saturday during his visit to a Florida community devastated by Hurricane Idalia.
At a press conference, Mr. DeSantis said he told Mr. Biden that it “would be very disruptive to have all the kind of security apparatus” that accompanies a presidential visit. He said he told the president that “we want to make sure that the restoration of power continues and that the relief efforts continue.”
The governor’s statement came just hours after Mr Biden confirmed to reporters that he would meet with the governor during his visit to the state. White House officials responded by saying the president had told Mr DeSantis he planned to visit before announcing it publicly – and that the governor had expressed no concerns at the time -there.
“President Biden and the First Lady look forward to meeting with members of the community affected by Hurricane Idalia and assessing the impacts of the storm,” said Emilie Simons, deputy White House press secretary. “Their visit to Florida was planned in close coordination with FEMA as well as state and local leaders to ensure there will be no impact on response operations.”
The gap underscores the tensions between the two politicians, whose campaigns have been clashing for months. A recent email from Biden to the President called Mr. DeSantis a politician who oversees an “inflation hot spot” and supports an “extreme MAGA plan to undermine democracy.” During last month’s Republican debate, Mr. DeSantis said the country was in decline under Mr. Biden and accused Mr. Biden of staying ‘on the beach’ as Maui residents suffered from devastating fires .
The stakes are high for both men. Mr Biden has struggled with lackluster approval ratings and arrives in Florida following criticism that his initial response to reporters on the Maui wildfires was a lackluster ‘no comment’. Mr. DeSantis has seen his polls plummet as his former benefactor, former President Donald J. Trump, has become a fierce rival, attacking at every turn.
Jason Pizzo, a Democratic senator from South Florida, said Mr DeSantis’ decision smacks of politics.
“Campaign strategy has replaced courtesy and decorum,” Mr. Pizzo said.
Politicians have been caught in the past for acting cordially with their opponents.
In 2015, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, a Republican who was considering running for president, warmly welcomed President Barack Obama during a visit to New Jersey in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
“That’s what civilized people do when someone comes to your state to offer help,” Mr. Christie later explained on Fox News. “You shake their hands and welcome them, that’s what I did.”
But Republicans felt the greeting – incorrectly called a hug in some circles – was too warm, and Mr. Christie suffered. Some of his conservative critics never forgave him for being too friendly with the enemy.
Earlier this week, before Mr. Biden announced his trip, Mr. DeSantis suggested it was important to put politics aside for the sake of his state.
“We have to meet the needs of people who are in danger or in difficulty,” Mr. DeSantis said earlier this week when asked about Mr. Biden. “And that has to triumph over any kind of short-term political calculation or any kind of positioning. This is the real deal. Some people’s lives are in danger.
White House officials appeared to take his comments at face value. On Thursday, Liz Sherwood-Randall, the president’s top Homeland Security adviser, told reporters that Mr. Biden and Mr. DeSantis “are very collegial when we have the work to do together to help Americans in need, Florida citizens in need”.
But 24 hours later, that collegiality seemed to have faded.
Mr. Biden and Mr. DeSantis have put politics on hold — for the most part — in the past in the face of disaster. Mr. Biden and the governor met following the collapse of a condominium building and were later cordial after Hurricane Ian.
A visit on Saturday would have been their first joint event since Mr. DeSantis officially announced his candidacy for the presidency.
After Hurricane Ian made landfall in Florida on September 28, Mr Biden waited seven days before heading to Florida on October 5. Hurricane Idalia made landfall in Florida on Wednesday.
Hurricane Idalia, which hit Florida as a Category 3 storm, forced Mr. DeSantis off the campaign trail. But it also gave him the opportunity to project his strength, something he hasn’t always done as a presidential candidate. Mr. DeSantis kicked off his candidacy with a disastrous Twitter event. He has struggled at times to take on Republican nomination front-runner Donald J. Trump and has repeatedly relaunched his campaign amid a fundraising shortfall, layoffs and reshuffling of his top executives.
However, in the face of the powerful hurricane, the governor sprang into action, as many Florida governors have done in the past.
He covered local and national airwaves with hurricane briefings, telling residents in the storm’s path that they should evacuate. His official schedule stated that he started work at 4 a.m. And initial surveys after the storm passed showed the damage was not as severe as initially feared, although many homes and businesses were inundated and the fishing industry so dear to the area, could be down for a long time. – risk in the long term.
Mr. Biden’s administration also moved quickly to weather the storm. Officials said 1,500 federal personnel were in Florida as of Friday responding to the storm, along with 540 urban search and rescue personnel and three disaster survivor assistance teams.
FEMA has made available more than 1.3 million meals and 1.6 million liters of water, officials said. Other efforts were underway by more than half a dozen other federal agencies.
So far, state officials have confirmed only one storm-related death on Friday. Power has been restored to many homes. Roads and bridges were reopened.
“We were ready for this,” Mr. DeSantis told Sean Hannity on Fox News on Wednesday night as he spoke in front of a historic fallen oak tree on the Governor’s mansion. “Most people have been evacuated, so we’re cautiously optimistic that we’ll do well.”
(Mr. Hannity kicked off the interview by showing footage of Mr. Biden vacationing on a Delaware beach in mid-August.)
Undoubtedly, Mr. DeSantis was helped by the fact that Idalia, while making landfall as a Category 3 storm, hit a sparsely populated part of the Gulf Coast known as Big Bend. By contrast, Ian swamped a much denser, more developed part of Florida, killing 150 people in the state and becoming the deadliest storm in decades. Reconstruction efforts after this storm are still far from over.
Now, after putting on a strong showing in last week’s Republican debate, Mr. DeSantis is likely hoping to return to the campaign trail from a position of strength. He often speaks to voters in Iowa and New Hampshire about his response to Ian, particularly his efforts to immediately repair bridges and causeways leading to barrier islands that had been cut off from the mainland. The rapid return of power and low death toll in Idalia may add to this litany.
And once the storm passed, Mr. DeSantis’ campaign began to resume normal operations. His campaign launched a fundraising appeal on Friday, offering signed baseball caps with the phrase “Our Great American Comeback” on them.
“He autographed 10 hats so we can launch a new contest for YOU to win and collect the resources we need to defeat Joe Biden,” the call text reads. “Let’s show the nation we have what it takes to defeat Joe Biden and the far left.”