Biden Tours DeSantis’s Turf as Idalia Puts Rivalry in Spotlight

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(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis have a chance to show US voters they have what it takes to lead in a crisis as the two potential rivals for the White House in 2024 respond to storm-ravaged Florida.

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The two men spent recent days trying to demonstrate they can put politics aside and cooperate on the response to Hurricane Idalia after recent events tested public perceptions of their empathy and competence. But as Biden touched down in Florida on Saturday to visit stricken areas, the White House sought to suggest DeSantis reneged on a joint tour, while a spokesman for the governor said there had been no such plan.

White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said “there was an understanding” that Biden and DeSantis would meet on the ground. “The president said he was coming to Florida,” she told reporters enroute to the visit. “We never heard any disagreement to it.”

DeSantis’s spokesman earlier cited the potential for the logistics surrounding a presidential visit to disrupt recovery efforts. In contrast, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell said “we have heard no concerns” from Florida officials about Biden’s visit.

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

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

Read More: DeSantis Unlikely to Join Biden on His Tour of Hurricane Damage

Biden, at the same time, has been battling Republican attacks and a new congressional investigation into his handling of the devastating wildfires in Hawaii. 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 managed to sidestep their political differences before and met during a previous 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.

Biden’s outreach has followed criticism over his handling of the wildfires on Maui, the deadliest in the US in more than a century, which left at least 115 dead and hundreds still missing.

Earlier: DeSantis and Biden Play Nice at Ian Epicenter in 2024 Preview

The president and first lady visited the Hawaiian island last week, walking through burned out streets in Lahaina, a historic town left in ruins by the fires, and meeting with local people and first responders. Maui residents said initial recovery efforts were disorganized and shared difficulties in obtaining assistance for food and shelter.

Even as much of the public’s focus has 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 told workers at FEMA headquarters Thursday.

One Republican, however, Florida Senator Rick Scott, said that he’d join Biden in Suwannee County on Saturday. “I’ll be urging him to support the immediate passage of my Federal Disaster Responsibility Act - families in Florida and across the U.S. need this relief ASAP,” Scott wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Earlier: Biden Seeks $4 Billion More in Aid After Summer of US Disasters

DeSantis has also sought to get ahead of the latest storm to counter past criticism.

The governor has been a constant presence on television in recent days after returning to Tallahassee a week ago. He has held daily press conferences and interviews, urging Floridians to evacuate and advising them on proper storm protocols.

He faced a backlash after Hurricane Ian in 2022 for evacuation orders critics said came too late in some counties and contributed to the storm’s death toll of more than 140 people.

On Thursday, DeSantis said there were no known deaths in Florida from Idalia. “To be here and not have any reported fatalities, it’s probably not something most people would have bet on four or five days ago,” he said.

He acknowledged communities were still dealing with debris and continued risks from flooding and storm surges. At the governor’s mansion, a 100-year-old oak tree fell while his family was home.

More than 482,216 customers had power restored as of Friday afternoon, according to the governor’s office.

On the trail, DeSantis donors and advisers have urged the governor to talk less about Florida and its culture-war issues and focus more on national matters such as the economy. Yet glimpses of his conservative brand have emerged.

On Thursday, he cited the Second Amendment, warning anyone thinking of looting homes.

“We are not going to tolerate any looting in the aftermath of a natural disaster,” DeSantis said. “You loot, we shoot, you never know what’s behind that door.”

--With assistance from Hadriana Lowenkron and Alicia Diaz.

(Updates with Biden arrival, disagreement with DeSantis over joint visit starting in second paragraph.)

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