Biden, DeSantis put politics aside with Hurricane Ian bearing down
President Biden and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) put politics aside Tuesday night and spoke about Hurricane Ian hitting Florida, a shift after Biden hadn’t spoken directly with his potential 2024 political rival in the lead-up to the storm.
Before the call, the White House had been pressed on why Biden hadn’t called DeSantis, a political foe who has leaned into culture wars and challenged the administration over the influx of migrants at the border.
News of the discussion silenced any criticism that politics might interfere with the government’s response to the Category 4 storm, at least for the time being.
“Voters expect politicians of all stripes to put down their swords when a disaster strikes, and it’s always advantageous to be able to cite one high-profile bipartisan action when challenged about your bipartisan bona fides,” said Stewart Verdery, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security under former President George W. Bush.
Former Rep. Chris Carney (D-Pa.), a Biden ally, said it benefits Biden and DeSantis to be in discussions.
“I think it’s kind of unsurprising that there would be the Washington game of speculation, ‘will they won’t they,’ ” Carney said. “But I think ultimately, when it comes to something as potentially catastrophic and devastating as a hurricane as strong as Ian, in this case the best politics is no politics.”
The White House on Wednesday, when asked about the call, stressed that there should be no politics involved in the response to Hurricane Ian, which could bring more than 10 feet of life-threatening storm surge to Florida’s west coast and has maximum sustained winds of more than 150 miles per hour.
“This is about the people of Florida,” press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters. “This is about two people who wanted to have a conversation on how we can be partners to the governor and his constituents and make sure that we are delivering for the people of Florida.”
Florida is a swing state in presidential contests and will help decide the Senate majority this fall. DeSantis is also up for reelection.
“Once you’ve won the election, you’re the governor or you’re the president for all people,” said GOP strategist Doug Heye. “That’s certainly what Biden won on. Whoever would breach that would look bad, particularly to Florida voters and Florida’s an important state.”
Carney, now a senior policy adviser at Nossaman LLP, added that “Democrats understand that this is a life threatening, catastrophic event and you kind of check your politics at the door in such a case.”
Biden will be briefed at FEMA’s headquarters on Thursday on the federal response to the hurricane and continue to receive regular briefings. The White House has not yet said if Biden will visit Florida after Ian passes.
The storm is a key test for both men.
Presidents are always judged on their ability to handle natural disasters, while DeSantis must manage a crisis in his home state as speculation swirls over if he will mount a White House bid.
After talking to Biden, the governor went on air with Fox News’s Sean Hannity and lauded the administration’s response to the hurricane so far.
“When people’s lives and their property are at risk like this, we all need to work together regardless of party lines,” DeSantis said. “It’s my sense that the administration wants to help.”
This isn’t the first disaster the Sunshine State has faced that has brought Biden and DeSantis together.
The two appeared together in person last year as they toured damage and spoke about the response to the collapse of a condominium building in Surfside, Fla., that killed nearly 100 people.
But the relationship has been tense more recently. Administration officials have condemned the governor’s support of the so-called Don’t Say Gay law that restricts discussion of sexual orientation in the classroom, and more recently have called out DeSantis for flying migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., accusing him of using human beings as political props.
The Biden-DeSantis call was only focused on the hurricane response and no other topic, Jean-Pierre said Wednesday when asked if the Martha’s Vineyard controversy came up.
The White House and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell dodged questions on Tuesday over why the president has not called DeSantis directly. Criswell said the lack of a call at the time had not impeded planning for the storm and that Biden had personally talked to the mayors of Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater.
One Florida-based GOP operative argued there is nothing to be gained politically for either DeSantis or Biden by giving the other the cold shoulder or appearing to take politics into account with a major storm bearing down on the state.
The operative noted that for DeSantis, being able to work with the federal government to show he is handling the storm well is important to his reelection prospects and beyond.
Biden has been selective in his direct conversations with governors recently.
He did not directly contact Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) about the water crisis in Jackson, but when Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico, Biden immediately contacted the territory’s Democratic governor, Pedro Pierluisi.
The political situation brought on by the hurricane this week is reminiscent to Hurricane Sandy, which hit New Jersey in 2012.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) felt the ire of Republicans after photographers captured pictures of him shaking hands with then-President Obama, who put his hand on the governor’s shoulder.
Christie was repeatedly put on the defensive during the 2016 GOP presidential primary for embracing Obama.
Democratic strategists say Biden’s interaction with DeSantis, though, won’t be a bad narrative for the Florida governor.
And the call underscores Biden’s preferred brand.
“One thing we know for sure is that President Biden’s brand is to rise above politics and he’s got the pelts on the wall to prove it,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne.
Payne agreed that coming together at this time should be the priority.
“I’m not in the business of advising Ron DeSantis but I think it would behoove any elected official to prioritize the best interests and well-being of their constituents over politics, especially when lives are literally on the line,” he said.
Amie Parnes contributed to this report.