President Joe Biden will visit hurricane-ravaged Florida with a pledge that federal, state and local governments will work together to help rebuild homes, businesses and lives — putting politics on hold for now to focus on those they need.
Hurricane Ian has left at least 84 confirmed dead, including 75 in Florida, as hundreds of thousands of people wait for power to be restored. Biden planned to meet Wednesday with residents and small business owners in Fort Myers, Florida, and thank government officials who are providing emergency aid and clearing debris.
With midterm elections just a month away, the crisis had the potential to bring political rivals together in common cause, at least for a while. Ian’s 150 mph winds and punishing storm surge last week knocked out power for 2.6 million in Florida. Many in Florida do not have access to food and water.
Joining Biden in Florida will be two of his most prominent Republican critics: Florida Gov. Ron DeSandis and Sen. Rick Scott, according to the White House and Scott’s spokesman. White House press secretary Karin Jean-Pierre suggested on Tuesday that it would be inappropriate to focus on political differences.
“There will be a long time, a long time, to discuss the differences between the president and the governor — but now is not the time,” Jean-Pierre told reporters at a White House briefing. “When it comes to delivering and making sure Floridians have what they need, especially after Hurricane Ian, we are one. We work as one.”
Biden usually waits to visit the scene of a natural disaster to ensure that his presence and the fleet of vehicles accompanying him do not hinder rescue efforts.
Before the storm hit, the president had planned to visit the Florida cities of Orlando and Fort Lauderdale last week, where he planned to highlight his efforts to strengthen Social Security and Medicaid. Biden has accused Scott of wanting to end both programs by proposing that the federal laws expire every five years, though the Florida senator has said he wants to keep the programs.
Biden and DeSantis have had many differences in recent years over how to fight COVID-19, immigration policy and more. In recent weeks, they have clashed over the governor’s decision to put immigrants on planes or buses to Democratic strongholds, a practice Biden called “reckless.”
The hurricane changed the purpose and tone of Biden’s first trip to Florida this year.
DeSantis confirmed Tuesday that he would meet with Biden in the hurricane zone and praised the administration’s Federal Emergency Management Agency for declaring a state of emergency before Ian made landfall.
“It was huge because everyone was ready. They knew they had the ability to do it,” DeSantis said. “We appreciate it. I think FEMA has worked very well with the state and the local community.”
The White House’s message of bipartisan unity marks a departure from Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, who at times threatened to cut off aid to Democratic officials who criticized him, including governors. Gavin Newsom of California and Andrew Cuomo of New York. At other times, Trump appeared insensitive or clumsy in his response to people’s plight.
Trump threatened to withhold federal money from California after the wildfires, saying state officials were to blame for the deadly fires, tweeting in 2018: “Billions of dollars are given away every year, with so many lives lost, all because of blatant negligence. mismanagement of forests. Recovery now or no more payments from the Fed!”.
Politicians’ responses to natural disasters have the power to make or break political careers.
As governor of Florida for eight years, Jeb Bush maintained a steady response to a parade of hurricanes and was rewarded with high approval ratings. The most problematic response of President George W. Bush and Louisiana lawmakers to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 still hangs over their legacies.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the Republican who welcomed President Barack Obama to his state to survey Hurricane Sandy damage just days before the 2012 general election, said that during natural disasters “the best political strategy is to not have a political strategy, to do your job.”
Christie has come under fire from some in his own party who believed his warm reception for Obama helped cement the Democrat’s re-election bid, but he has no regrets.
“At the core of what government is there for, is to protect the safety and well-being of the people,” Christie said in an interview Tuesday. “The only thing that should be on the president’s mind, on Gov. DeSantis’ mind, on (Sen.) Marco Rubio’s mind is the turmoil and the tragedy that happened in people’s lives and how we can make it better.”
Christie noted that the comparisons to Sandy are not accurate — Biden is two years away from being a candidate himself, and DeSantis is weeks, not days, away from facing voters in his re-election bid. But Christie said any attempts to score political points would be warned at the polls.
“This is not about games,” Christie said. “This is a pretty transparent period and people will take it – it’s not what they want and they’ll punish you for it.”
Associated Press writers Zeke Miller and Seung Min Kim in Washington and Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Florida contributed to this report.