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In Florida, Even a Hurricane Can’t Sweep Away Presidential Politics

President Biden offered his support and condolences to a Florida community hit hard by Hurricane Idalia after being snubbed by Ron DeSantis, the state’s Republican governor and a potential rival for the presidency.

Mr. Biden and Jill Biden, the first lady, took an aerial tour of Live Oak, a small town east of Tallahassee; received a briefing from federal and local emergency medical workers; and met with members of the community. In brief remarks, the president vowed that the federal government would support those affected for as long as it takes to recover.

“We’re not going anywhere,” he said. “The federal government, we’re here to help.”

In normal times, the politics of disaster dictate that Mr. Biden would link arms with Mr. DeSantis in a bipartisan display of unity to show those who suffered — and potential voters across the country — that they care.

These are not normal times.

Mr. DeSantis did not greet Mr. Biden at the airport or join him for the briefing and tour of the damage, choosing instead to hand out donated Chick-fil-A meals to people in Horseshoe Beach, about 70 miles away.

At a news conference on Friday, Mr. DeSantis said he had told Mr. Biden that it “would be very disruptive to have the whole kind of security apparatus” that comes along with a presidential visit. He said he had also relayed that “we want to make sure that the power restoration continues, that the relief efforts continue.”

There was little evidence in Live Oak that the president’s arrival was causing disruption. Local officials in the city said that power and communications were being restored quickly and that search and rescue operations had been completed by Saturday morning, before the president and his motorcade arrived.

The governor’s decision not to join the president came just hours after Mr. Biden confirmed to reporters that he would meet with Mr. DeSantis. 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 not expressed any concerns at that time.

Deanne Criswell, the administrator of FEMA, told reporters on Air Force One on Saturday that the White House and the governor’s team had agreed on the location for the visit earlier in the week, and that Mr. DeSantis’s aides had not raised any security or operational objections.

Senator Rick Scott, a Florida Republican who often clashes with Mr. Biden, did join the president on Saturday, praising him for taking swift action even before the storm made landfall.

“The president did a great job with the early declaration” of a natural disaster, Mr. Scott said. He called it a “big deal” that Mr. Biden and FEMA had moved so quickly to help the area. “These are not rich communities,” he said. “Many of them struggle.”

About 6,850 people live in Live Oak, the seat of Suwannee County, and more than a quarter of the residents live in poverty, according to census data. Forty-two percent of the population identifies as Black, 42 percent as white and 8 percent as Hispanic. Donald J. Trump won 78 percent of the county’s vote in 2020.

“The spirit of this community is remarkable,” Mr. Biden said after touring one neighborhood with many downed trees. “When people are in real trouble, the most important thing you can give them is hope. There’s no hope like your neighbor walking across the street and see what they can do for you.”

At the Suwannee Riverside Elementary School, near where Mr. Biden received his briefing, members of the National Guard were handing out water and other basic supplies to a long line of cars. Across the street at the local high school, dozens of mobile disaster units had been set up to provide sleeping quarters for rescue workers.

Mr. Biden shrugged off the governor’s decision not to meet with him.

“He may have had other reasons, but he did help us plan this,” the president said. “He sat with FEMA and decided where we should go.”

But Saturday underscored the tensions between the two politicians, whose campaigns have been lashing out at each other for months. A recent Biden for President email called Mr. DeSantis a politician who oversees an “inflation hot spot” and supports an “extreme MAGA blueprint to undermine democracy.” At the Republican debate last month, Mr. DeSantis said the country was in decline under Mr. Biden and accused Mr. Biden of staying “on the beach” while the people of Maui suffered devastating fires.

The stakes are high for both men. Mr. Biden has struggled with mediocre 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 polling numbers plummet as his onetime benefactor, former President Donald J. Trump, has become a fierce rival, attacking at every turn.

Jason Pizzo, a Democratic state senator from South Florida, said Mr. DeSantis’s decision smelled like politics, saying that “campaign strategy has replaced civility and decorum.”

Politicians have been called out in the past for being cordial with their opponents.

In 2012, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a Republican who was considering an eventual run for president, greeted President Barack Obama warmly on a visit to New Jersey in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

“That’s what civilized people do when someone comes to your state to offer help,” Mr. Christie argued later on Fox News. “You shake their hand and you welcome them, which is what I did.”

But Republicans thought the greeting — wrongly called a hug in some quarters — was too warm, and Mr. Christie suffered for it. Some of his conservative critics never forgave him for what they saw as being too friendly with the enemy.

President Biden walking outdoors at the White House.
President Biden, at the White House on Friday, has struggled with mediocre approval ratings.Credit…Kent Nishimura for The New York Times

Earlier this week, before Mr. Biden announced his trip, Mr. DeSantis had suggested that it was important to put politics aside in the interests of his state.

“That has got to triumph over any type of short-term political calculation or any type of positioning,” he said.

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 of helping Americans in need, citizens of Florida in need.”

But 24 hours later, that collegiality faded.

A joint visit on Saturday would have been their first event together since Mr. DeSantis officially announced he was running for president. Mr. Biden and the governor met in the aftermath of the collapse of a condominium building in June 2021 and after Hurricane Ian last year.

After Hurricane Ian made landfall in Florida on Sept. 28, Mr. Biden waited seven days before visiting Florida on Oct. 5. Hurricane Idalia made landfall in Florida on Wednesday.

President Biden and Gov. Ron DeSantis speaking with a group of people last year in Fort Myers, Fla.
Mr. Biden and Mr. DeSantis in Florida last year following the far more devastating Hurricane Ian.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Hurricane Idalia, which hit Florida as a Category 3 storm, forced Mr. DeSantis off the campaign trail. But it also allowed him an opportunity to project strength, which he has not always done as a presidential candidate. Mr. DeSantis launched his candidacy with a disastrously glitchy event on Twitter. He has at times struggled to take on the front-runner for the Republican nomination, Donald J. Trump, and has repeatedly rebooted his campaign amid a fund-raising shortfall, layoffs and a shake-up of his senior staff.

Facing the powerful hurricane, however, the governor sprang into action, as many Florida governors have done in the past.

He blanketed local and national airwaves with hurricane briefings, telling residents in the storm’s path that they needed to evacuate. His official schedule showed that he started his workdays at 4 a.m. And early surveys after the storm had passed showed that the damage was not as severe as originally feared, even though many homes and businesses were flooded and the area’s cherished fishing industry may be in long-term peril.

Mr. Biden’s administration also moved quickly to confront the storm. Officials said that by Friday there were 1,500 federal personnel in Florida dealing with the storm, along with 540 Urban Search and Rescue personnel and three disaster survivor assistance teams.

FEMA made available more than 1.3 million meals and 1.6 million liters of water, officials said. Other efforts were underway by more than a half-dozen other federal agencies.

So far, state officials have confirmed only one death as being storm-related as of Friday. Power had been restored to many homes. Roads and bridges were being reopened.

Two men and a woman examine objects near demolished stairs in Horseshoe Beach, Fla.
A family sifts through belongings in Horseshoe Beach, Fla., on Thursday.Credit…Emily Kask for The New York Times

With the storm gone, Mr. DeSantis’s campaign has started to resume normal operations. On Friday, his campaign sent out a fund-raising appeal, offering signed baseball caps with the phrase “Our Great American Comeback” on them.

“He autographed 10 hats for us to launch a new contest for YOU to win and raise the resources we need to defeat Joe Biden,” the text appeal said. “Let’s show the nation that we have what it takes to defeat Joe Biden and the far Left.”

Source : TheNewYorkTimes