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The Memo: DeSantis faces make-or-break moment as Hurricane Ian bears down on Florida

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is facing a make-or-break test as Hurricane Ian bears down on his state.

The immediate concern is for the Floridians in harm’s way from the mammoth storm, which is expected to make landfall late Wednesday.  

Hurricane Ian has already lashed western Cuba and is gaining strength in the Gulf. Storm surge warnings are in effect for large swathes of Florida’s western coast. More than 2 million people have been subject to evacuation orders.

For DeSantis, the immediate concern is blunting the short-term impact of the storm. Shelters have been set up, states of emergency declared in all the state’s counties and tolls lifted from many roads.

But if the humanitarian concerns are huge, so too are the political stakes.

DeSantis is facing reelection in six weeks. He is one of two leading contenders — along with former President Trump — for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. He has been one of President Biden’s fiercest foes, an ardent courter of controversy and a hate figure for many Democrats.

Natural or environmental disasters can have a huge impact on a politician’s standing. 

Former President George W. Bush never recovered from the botched response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Former President Obama suffered through an uncertain time in the immediate wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, though suffered little lasting damage. 

In Florida’s recent history, former Govs. Jeb Bush (R) and Rick Scott (R) are generally perceived to have burnished their reputations by their responses to several hurricanes during each of their tenures.

The hostile relationship between DeSantis and Biden is front and center in the current crisis.

Early Tuesday afternoon, the White House defended Biden’s decision not to speak directly with DeSantis up until that point about the approaching hurricane, even as the president called the mayors of Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater.

During a press briefing Tuesday, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Deanne Criswell noted that Biden had delegated her to “contact the governor early on.” 

Criswell insisted that the lack of direct Biden-DeSantis contact would have no negative impact. She noted that Biden had signed DeSantis’s request for a declaration of emergency on Saturday. She also promised that the “federal family” was standing ready to respond to any needs DeSantis identifies.

Later Tuesday, however, Biden and DeSantis did talk, according to a tweet from White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

Jean-Pierre said that the two had spoken “this evening…to discuss the steps the Federal government is taking to help Florida prepare for Hurricane Ian.” She added that both men were “committed to continue close coordination.”

Such coordination would require Biden and DeSantis to get over much bad blood between them. In March, for example, DeSantis called Biden “a doddering, quasi-senile president.”

The governor struck a far different tone on Tuesday, saying at a news conference that “we don’t have time for pettiness.”

“We gotta work together to make sure we’re doing the best job for them, so my phone line is open,” DeSantis added.

For all that, it may still suit each man to keep the other at arm’s length, even in an emergency. 

DeSantis is vying with Trump for support among the MAGA wing of the GOP, which is vehemently opposed to Biden in every respect. 

Back in late 2012, another Republican governor — Chris Christie of New Jersey — worked closely with Obama as Superstorm Sandy hit. The move was praised by pundits but proved toxic for Christie’s White House ambitions. More than three years later, Christie was still denying on the presidential campaign trail that he had ever hugged Obama.

Given the red-hot scorn DeSantis has poured on the president on previous occasions, “I think it is a little much to ask Biden to yuck it up with him on the phone,” said John “Mac” Stipanovich, a longtime GOP operative in Florida. “And as for DeSantis, it is probably better for him, too, because his bread and-butter is vilifying Biden.”

However, there are other concerns as well.

First, DeSantis has to show a basic level of competence in responding to the storm. At all costs, he needs to avoid the kind of haunting soundbite George W. Bush delivered when he told the FEMA head at the time of Katrina, Michael Brown, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”

The competence test is one that DeSantis is expected to pass. In his appearances at news conferences as the storm barrels toward his state, the governor has sounded sober-minded, with none of the bizarre tangents that characterized Trump’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But there is a large question mark looming over DeSantis’s ability to show compassion for those who will, inevitably, suffer grave effects from the hurricane. Just as the governor’s detractors don’t question his intelligence, even his biggest fans don’t hold him out as a natural empath.

“Any politician in this type of emergency situation has to show that he or she cares about the people of their state, can empathize and can understand the problems that [they] are facing or are about to face,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor emeritus who specializes in political communications.

“It’s very, very important,” he added. “I think probably DeSantis wants to show firmness and confidence, but you also have to show compassion and a human-ness.”

There is, of course, a political opportunity for DeSantis in the coming days — even if it would sound macabre for him or his backers to say it.

Unlike Trump, he still holds levers of power. If he can pull them to manage his way through a historic storm, he could become an even more formidable political figure.

“Everybody is looking at this as an important moment for DeSantis,” said Susan MacManus, a professor emerita at the University of South Florida and a well-known commentator on the state’s politics.

“This gives him the chance to show he is a manager — and an empathizer to people who are hurting.”

Right now, the question of whether he can meet the moment hangs in the balance.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Barack Obama Biden Chris Christie Florida George W. Bush Hurricane Ian Jeb Bush Joe Biden Rick Scott Ron DeSantis

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