November 29, 2022

FORT MYERS, Fla. — President Biden, standing amid the devastation a week after Hurricane Ian slammed into southwest Florida, said on Wednesday that the federal government would provide “every element” of its resources to support the recovery effort.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential Republican rival to the president in 2024, stood near Mr. Biden and praised the work the White House had done to pump federal resources into his state “from the very beginning.”

“We have very different political philosophies,” Mr. Biden said as he toured the area with Mr. DeSantis, putting it lightly. “In dealing with this crisis, we’ve been in complete lock step.”

In any other political era, such an appearance would have been standard fare. It would not be an open question whether the leader of a state brought to its knees by a natural disaster would actually appear with the visiting president of another political party. But it took a Category 4 hurricane to temporarily dull the animosity between Mr. Biden and Mr. DeSantis, two men who share a streak of intense competitiveness but whose ideologies, temperaments and political styles could hardly be more different.

“We are cutting through the red tape, and that’s from local government, state government, all the way up to the president, so we appreciate the team effort,” Mr. DeSantis said before Mr. Biden took the podium.

A brief flash of civil partnership may have been what Floridians were looking for as they try to piece their lives back together. As relief and recovery efforts continue, the estimate for the cost of the storm is rising into the billions, and the death toll is still climbing. The area that Mr. Biden toured by helicopter and on foot Wednesday had been damaged or outright destroyed, homes and livelihoods wiped away in a rush of wind and water.

“Today we have one job and only one job,” Mr. Biden said, “and that’s to make sure that people in Florida get everything that they need to fully, thoroughly recover.”

But for those looking for evidence of the tension between them — apparent most recently over the stunt engineered by Mr. DeSantis to fly migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard as a way of criticizing the administration over its immigration policy — there were subtle signs that their rivalry is alive and well.

Mr. DeSantis, who in recent days has been touring hard-hit communities dressed in jeans and waterproof shrimping boots, has been emphasizing that it is hard to get an understanding for the extent of the devastation from the air. In this deeply conservative part of the state, Mr. DeSantis has said little as his constituents lashed out about what they saw as a lack of federal support.

As the governor swept through a relief station set up at Monroe Canal Marina on Tuesday, residents swarmed to take photos and thank him for his work. “To hell with Joe Biden,” bellowed one man. “Where the hell is he?”

“You can go over it in a helicopter, and you can see damage, but it does not do it justice until you are actually on the ground,” Mr. DeSantis said during a solo appearance on Wednesday.

Arriving to a news conference later that day after an hourlong helicopter ride in which he surveyed the effects of the storm with the first lady, Jill Biden, Mr. Biden seemed eager to emphasize that he had toured a number of disaster areas as president. (He traveled to Florida two days after visiting storm-battered Puerto Rico.) He also pointed out that he was able to see a large amount of damage, including flooding and leveled homes, from Marine One.

“I’m sure it’s much worse on the ground,” Mr. Biden said. “But you can see a whole hell of a lot of the damage from the air. And you can imagine.”

Even in the midst of nature’s wreckage, there were more overt signs that the president was visiting unfriendly political territory. Mr. Biden landed in Florida near Fort Myers Beach, a laid-back strip of sand and road that attracts rowdy spring breakers and margarita-toting snowbirds. The town was all but leveled when Hurricane Ian slammed into the coast with wind speeds exceeding 150 miles per hour.

How Times reporters cover politics. We rely on our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members may vote, they are not allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money to, or raising money for, any political candidate or election cause.

As he traveled to meet Mr. DeSantis in a wharf area near Fort Myers, the president passed people who were taking photos. Others were holding up their middle fingers.

Still, Mr. Biden stressed that personal politics would not affect the federal government’s response to the storm. Ahead of his visit, the White House announced that it would fulfill a request from the Florida government to extend the period of time the federal government would fully fund debris removal and emergency response efforts. The funding will last for 60 days rather than 30 days, though Mr. Biden said Mr. DeSantis would likely have to request more.

It is unclear whether the two leaders’ delicate détente will hold longer than Mr. Biden’s four hours on the ground, but they must now work together on a lengthy recovery effort, which could soon bleed into the midterm election season.

Mr. Biden and Mr. DeSantis will also have to contend with the influence of former President Donald J. Trump, another South Florida resident who has demonstrated little interest in ceding the political spotlight to rivals in either party.

While the president and the governor have stayed in regular telephone contact in recent days, they showed little interest in publicly detailing their conversations or suggesting that the nature of their relationship had changed.

Gestures of solidarity in a moment of crisis can carry political risk: Mr. Biden’s visit recalled the 2012 trip by President Barack Obama to New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy, when Chris Christie, the state’s governor at the time and a rising star in the Republican Party, was photographed conspicuously embracing Mr. Obama. Mr. Christie, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 2016, was considerably maligned over the awkward embrace.

On Wednesday, the president and the governor settled for a handshake. While Mr. Biden views Mr. Trump as a threat to democracy, he speaks of Mr. DeSantis, 44, as an emerging force in a party he says he no longer recognizes.

“This is not your father’s Republican Party,” Mr. Biden said this spring, targeting Mr. DeSantis, a former congressman who is running for re-election against Charlie Crist, a centrist Democrat. “It’s not even conservative in a traditional sense of conservatism. It’s mean, it’s ugly.”

Before the storm, the two publicly tangled over everything from mask mandates for teachers during the coronavirus pandemic to the contents of mathematics textbooks. In February, Mr. DeSantis accused the president of being a “fellow that just hates Florida.”

When Mr. DeSantis’s government proudly flew exhausted and confused migrants, some of them children, to Martha’s Vineyard last month, the president called the stunt “reckless” and “un-American.”

During his visit, Mr. Biden only briefly touched on their disagreements, including their differing beliefs over what might have caused the storm.

While Mr. DeSantis and other Florida Republicans have remained hostile to the idea that climate change could be causing more powerful storms, the president said that the brutality of the storm and the forces that caused it were a direct result of a warming planet.

“I think the one thing this has finally ended is any discussion about whether or not there’s climate change, we should do something about it,” Mr. Biden said.

As federal relief funds have flowed unimpeded to his state since Hurricane Ian, Mr. DeSantis — who as a freshman congressman voted against a funding plan that would have helped victims of Hurricane Sandy in 2013 — has turned from a rhetorical bomb thrower into an agreeable partner. He has spoken several times by phone with Mr. Biden in recent days. He has also played nice on television, even with more combustible personalities like Tucker Carlson of Fox News.

By the time they were through on Wednesday, both men reiterated their commitment to helping Florida without letting politics get in the way, and Mr. Biden even threw in a compliment for Mr. DeSantis: “I think he’s done a good job.” But Mr. Biden was not able to resist pointing out that he had been the one to reach out first.

“Look, I called him,” the president added. “I think even before he called me, when I heard this storm was on its way.”

Reporting was contributed by Patricia Mazzei from Miami; Emily Cochrane from St. James City, Fla.; Neil Vigdor from Greenwich, Conn.; Zolan Kanno-Youngs from Washington; and Eliza Fawcett from North Fort Myers, Fla.

Source link