Biden, DeSantis meet in Florida, and promise bipartisanship on Ian relief

FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla. — When President Biden visited this storm-ravaged southwest Florida community on Wednesday, where he toured the damage from Hurricane Ian and pledged billions of dollars for recovery, he took the opportunity to praise one of his top political rivals and fiercest rivals. critics — Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“I think he’s done a good job,” Biden told reporters when asked about the governor’s handling of the deadly storm. “We have very different political philosophies, but we have worked hand in glove. … In dealing with this crisis, we have been in complete lock step.”

With those comments, Biden offered a nod to the kind of bipartisanship he once promised to restore to politics while paying tribute to a man who could soon try to oust him from the White House.

DeSantis, who has previously attacked Biden as weak and threatened to send planeloads of undocumented immigrants to the president’s home in Delaware, said Biden had been an admirable partner as Florida faced its deadliest storm in decades.

I want to thank President Biden,” DeSantis said before going on to praise the Federal Emergency Management Agency under the president’s leadership. “We were very fortunate to have good coordination with the White House and with FEMA.”

The hurricane-related detente between the president and the governor with presidential hopefuls marked a rare moment of cross-party civility in a charged political climate defined by name-calling, threats and trolling. DeSantis has seen his star rise as he has leaned into pugilistic politics, while Biden has described the decline in decorum as a threat to the soul of the nation.

Both men may have seen an opportunity in embracing collaboration in the wake of a deadly natural disaster. For Biden, who repeatedly used the word “united” on Wednesday, it was a chance to fulfill his campaign promise to defuse tensions and work across the aisle.

For DeSantis, it was a chance to shift from the combative style of government embraced by former President Donald Trump and show he could be president when the moment called for it. It’s a skill some of Trump’s supporters say he lacked, which may have cost him the presidency. The governor, standing in front of the presidential seal on a lectern that had been set up for Biden, also used the meeting to praise his own handling of the hurricane.

“One of the things you see in this response is that we’re cutting through the red tape,” DeSantis said in introducing Biden.

Before their official remarks, the two men spent more than an hour together at a storm-ravaged marina in a part of the state that had been leveled by surging waters and strong winds. They only spoke directly for a few minutes and shook hands, but remained largely out of earshot of reporters. The rest of the time they worked separately around the marina, talking to local officials and hurricane survivors. The scene, against the backdrop of a damaged seafood cafe and an overturned boat, gave voters a chance to see Biden and DeSantis side by side.

The Governor, 44 and more than three decades younger than the 79-year-old president, was more animated with his hands during the interactions and spoke with a more powerful voice. Biden, known for being a tactile politician with a knack for comforting those experiencing grief, took off his coat and donned aviator sunglasses as he shook hands with the storm survivors and local officials he met. At one point he draped his arm around a woman who hugged him back.

A photographer snapped a photo of Biden, the woman and a man in a “Florida Cracker” T-shirt — all smiling — with DeSantis standing alone in the foreground, wearing a somber expression.

Before meeting with DeSantis, Biden surveyed the storm’s aftermath by helicopter, seeing downed trees, destroyed businesses and flooded homes. He also attended a briefing with local officials and saw more of the wreckage on foot, meeting with small business owners and local residents in one of the communities hardest hit by the deadly Category 4 hurricane.

After observing the damage, Biden promised that while recovery efforts could take years, the federal government would provide support as long as needed.

“The only thing I can assure you is that the federal government will be here until it’s done,” Biden said, emphasizing that in times of disaster, people across the political spectrum can come together in a time of crisis.

In a preview of the trip, the White House said Biden would put aside his policy differences with DeSantis, who drew White House ire last month by flying dozens of Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., in an effort to to draw attention to issues of illegal immigration.

“There will be plenty of time to discuss differences between the president and the governor, and — but now is not the time,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Tuesday.

The White House also invited Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida, and Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), who represents the area, and Biden spent time speaking with each official during his visit.

The Donalds, whose district was hit hard by Ian, took to Twitter to highlight the apolitical nature of the trip, saying he was happy to welcome the Bidens to Florida.

“Policy differences aside, it is the job of every president and first lady to comfort and support Americans in need after a devastating tragedy,” he wrote on Twitter. “Before (R) and (D) we are Americans.”

Still, the bipartisan meeting wasn’t entirely free of political messages, even if Biden and DeSantis were subtle in delivering them.

Biden used his remarks to argue that the hurricane and other extreme weather events highlighted the need to fight climate change. He also promised that Florida would “build back better” after the storm, referring to his 2020 campaign motto.

DeSantis spoke of reducing government “red tape” and pushed for private charities to shoulder some of the recovery costs, thereby reducing reliance on government aid.

Both men noted that power had been quickly restored in most of the state, although they offered different explanations that spoke to their political ideologies. Biden credited his work as vice president with providing millions of dollars in funding for “smart grid” technology in Florida, which he said was critical in the restoration effort. DeSantis, on the other hand, cited his push to get hundreds of utility workers to the areas that lacked power to get it restored.

The meeting was not without political risk, as past interactions between governors and presidents from opposing parties have sometimes been used in partisan attacks against the politicians involved.

Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running as a Democrat against DeSantis in this year’s gubernatorial race, was ousted from the Republican Party not long after he welcomed President Barack Obama to the state and accepted emergency aid from the 2009 federal stimulus package. Crist said later that the image he and Obama embraced was used by his political opponents to paint him as insufficiently conservative.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie faced similar attacks during the 2016 presidential election from his Republican rivals for welcoming Obama to New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy devastated his state. Photos of Christie and Obama embracing circulated, and his Republican opponents accused him of “hugging” the Democratic president. Christie later said he met with Obama because he needed federal help for his state after the deadly storm.

Hurricane Ian slammed into southwest Florida on September 28, flooding homes, tearing roofs off, washing away roads and leaving thousands of people stranded without power or access to essential services.

Biden, who was traveling with First Lady Jill Biden and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, had already spoken by phone with DeSantis several times in recent days and pledged to give Florida everything it needs to recover from the storm.

During the trip, he announced that the federal government would pay 100 percent of the cost of debris removal and other assistance for 60 days, a decision he said would likely free up billions of additional dollars for the state.

DeSantis, who had publicly expressed concern that the original 30-day window for full refunds would not be enough for some communities, thanked Biden for the “significant” extension.

The Florida Medical Examiners Commission has confirmed more than 70 storm-related deaths, but the total is likely higher as searches continue for more missing people. Also, survivors of the storm face a long road to recovery as they try to repair their homes and rebuild their lives.

The area Biden visited Wednesday had been battered by Ian, with hundreds of homes and businesses damaged or destroyed and much of the beach community’s commercial area flattened.

“We took a really bad shot,” Fort Myers Beach Mayor Ray Murphy said in a video message Friday. “A real hard hit. There’s a lot of destruction down here. And more on the way.”

DeSantis has been consistent in complimenting the Biden administration on its handling of the hurricane and thanking FEMA for its efforts.

“I think FEMA has been working very well with the state and the local people, and we want to continue to do that and have all hands on deck,” he said Tuesday.

Criswell, who spent time with DeSantis last week, praised his team for its cooperation with federal officials.

DeSantis has previously criticized Biden over some of his policies, most recently focusing on immigration.

The governor’s decision to fly dozens of Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard sparked backlash from Democrats, with Biden calling the action “un-American” and “reckless.”

For his part, DeSantis drew a connection between the federal government’s handling of immigration and the hurricane, arguing Tuesday that the Biden administration’s border policies were hampering recovery efforts.

“What’s happened in having massive numbers of people across the border has not been good for this country,” he told reporters during a hurricane-related news conference hours before Biden arrived stateside. He claimed that three people arrested for looting in the aftermath of the storm were not in the country legally.

“I don’t have the authority to forcibly relocate people,” he added, describing the migrant flights as a “voluntary” relocation program. “If I could, I would take the three looters, I would drag them out by the collar and send them back where they came from.”

The audience at the press conference burst into applause.

Wednesday’s event with Biden was a less combative affair, although there were still glimmers of political difference at times.

Biden used his remarks to talk about how extreme weather in places including California, Colorado, New Mexico and Oregon proved climate change was wreaking havoc around the country.

“The one thing this has finally ended is the discussion about whether there is climate change or not [whether] we should do something about it,” he said as DeSantis listened.

Conservatives have been reluctant to link climate change to Hurricane Ian, accusing Democrats of politicizing the tragedy. DeSantis did not mention climate in his remarks.

Still, Biden took the opportunity to connect DeSantis to the issue.

“What the governor has done is quite remarkable,” Biden said. “The governor has acknowledged that there is such a thing as global warming.”

As Biden made those comments and answered questions from reporters after his official remarks ended, DeSantis quietly got into his vehicle and left the scene.

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