DeSantis Absent as Biden Tours Rival’s Turf in Storm-Hit Florida

President Joe Biden surveyed damage from Hurricane Idalia in Florida without meeting Governor Ron DeSantis, even after the two potential 2024 rivals sought to show they can put aside politics and cooperate in the disaster response.

(Bloomberg) — President Joe Biden surveyed damage from Hurricane Idalia in Florida without meeting Governor Ron DeSantis, even after the two potential 2024 rivals sought to show they can put aside politics and cooperate in the disaster response.

What could have been an unlikely moment of unity devolved into bickering as the White House sought to suggest on Saturday that DeSantis backed out of a joint tour, while a spokesman for the governor said earlier there had been no such plan.

With Biden enroute to northern Florida on Air Force One, White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said that DeSantis in a conversation with Biden earlier in the week gave “no indication that he was not going to be there” at the “mutually agreed upon” location that Biden visited.

“No, I’m not disappointed,” Biden told reporters when asked about DeSantis’s absence. “He may have had other reasons.”

Biden said DeSantis helped plan the visit by speaking with Federal Emergency Management Agency officials.

The storm has offered DeSantis, in the throes of a struggling campaign for the 2024 Republican nomination, a national spotlight to demonstrate both crisis management and a human touch that critics say has been missing from the campaign trail.

For Biden it was an opportunity to counter Republican-led criticism for his handling of wildfires on Maui, the deadliest in the US in more than a century, which left at least 115 dead and hundreds still missing. 

“We’re not going anywhere, the federal government. We’re here to help the state as long as it takes,” Biden said on Saturday.

The president did have a moment of bipartisanship during a disaster response briefing at an elementary school in the town of Live Oak, when Senator Rick Scott — a Republican and former Florida governor — thanked Biden for a “great job” on preparedness ahead of the storm and his federal disaster declaration. 

Standing alongside Scott, Biden thanked him for attending and providing him with all necessary information.

Earlier, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told reporters “we have heard no concerns” from Florida officials about Biden’s visit — contrasting with a DeSantis spokesman who had cited the potential for the logistics surrounding a presidential visit to disrupt recovery efforts.

As Biden was arriving, DeSantis posted a photo of himself with Florida National Guard members aiding recovery efforts. His office didn’t immediately respond to an emailed request about the governor’s agenda for Saturday.

For his part, Biden has been battling Republican attacks and a new congressional investigation into his handling of the devastating Hawaii wildfires. The scope of the destruction and Biden’s beach vacation during the recovery have undermined key political assets: his reputation as an experienced hand in managing the federal government, and as an empathetic consoler-in-chief.

He has sought to demonstrate close coordination in the Idalia response, speaking to DeSantis three times this week to inform him of federal steps to aid in the recovery. 

“Seems like we should be on direct dial, the two of us,” Biden said Thursday during a visit to FEMA headquarters.

The two men have sidestepped their political differences before during a natural disaster: last October, they toured Florida communities after Hurricane Ian. While they were cordial and exchanged praises, they avoided displays of warmth and largely kept their distance, surrounded by their spouses and aides.

That was before DeSantis entered the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination and Biden announced he’s running for a second term.

Even as attention turned to Idalia, Biden on Wednesday sought to assure Maui residents that he hadn’t forgotten their plight, announcing $95 million from the bipartisan infrastructure law to strengthen Hawaii’s power grid to prevent future disasters.

The White House is also requesting $16 billion for disaster relief from Congress, increasing its original $12 billion request from just weeks ago, citing Idalia, Maui and other disasters.

Biden reproached DeSantis’s party, criticizing Republican lawmakers who have balked at the request and questioning whether climate skepticism was blocking more emergency funding for natural disasters. 

“We’re gonna need a whole hell of a lot more money to deal all you’re taking care of,” Biden said Thursday.

–With assistance from Alicia Diaz.

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