Biden, DeSantis set aside politics in tragedy response
President Biden and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who just might challenge him for the White House in 2024, were unlikely partners this week, united by tragedy.
Biden and DeSantis sat shoulder-to-shoulder at a meeting Thursday during the president’s trip to South Florida to offer federal assistance to Surfside, the site of a terrible condo building collapse where the death toll appears set to reach above 140.
DeSantis rode to Florida’s governorship as a disciple of former President Trump, making appearances on Fox News that helped him defeat a more establishment GOP candidate. He’s a conservative favorite who has taken barbs from liberals over his handling of issues such as voting rights and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
But on Thursday, DeSantis and Biden both benefited from the public signal that they were setting aside any political differences to bring empathy and help to a grief-stricken community.
After Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava (D) commended the coordination between federal, state and local officials, Biden touched DeSantis’s arm for a moment and declared that they were “letting the nation know we can cooperate.”
“I mean, just the simple act of everybody doing whatever needs to be done,” Biden continued. “And it really makes a difference, Gov.”
DeSantis then took a moment to thank Biden before reflecting on the devastation in the area.
“And you’ve recognized the severity of this tragedy from day one. And you’ve been very supportive,” he said.
The episode earned praise for both leaders.
“It reminds us that we are all mortal and that we are all human and that we all share these same feelings, whether you’re red or blue,” said Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
GOP former state lawmaker and current Miami-Dade County Commissioner René Garcia praised Biden and DeSantis’s show of unity, calling them both “strong leaders.”
“They’re man enough to say you know what, this is not about politics,” Garcia said. “This is about doing the right thing for our state and for our country and for our people.”
Biden is known for his emotional displays of empathy during times of calamity and hardship, having lived through a number of personal losses himself, and he’s made unifying the country and reaching across the aisle a key goal of his presidency.
“President Biden’s strength is that he believes in America,” said Christian Ulvert, who worked as a senior adviser on both Biden’s and Cava’s campaigns. “He brings that out in people, even [in] his most harshest critics.”
On Thursday, Biden announced that the federal government would pick up the costs incurred by the county and state for the recovery efforts for the first 30 days.
Basil Smikle, a Democratic strategist, said that the meeting allowed Biden to demonstrate that he is “quick to respond to crises and tragedies without political or partisan hesitation.”
DeSantis, on the other hand, is known in part for his combative exchanges with the press and his liberal critics. Thursday’s appearance marked a major contrast for the governor.
“Ron DeSantis introduced himself with an empathetic side for the first time in his governorship,” said one Democratic strategist. “The fact he helped the Democratic mayor [and] he welcomed and embraced the message of the Democratic president, some of his base may not love it. But the broader electorate is going to say this is a defining moment for him.”
Democrats, however, are not going to embrace DeSantis over his handling of one disaster.
“I’m saddened that it took such an immense tragedy for Gov. DeSantis to put politics aside and allow the federal government to aid Floridians in need,” said Steve Simeonidis, chair of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party.
Biden and DeSantis’s meeting in Surfside is not the first time members of two opposing parties have come together in the face of tragedy and it will not be the last.
In 2012, then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R ) famously heaped praise on then-President Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy just days before the 2012 general election, frustrating Republicans. The next year, Christie welcomed Obama to New Jersey in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, embracing the Democratic president.
“That probably hurt Chris Christie’s chances of becoming the nominee of his party and that raises a very interesting political question,” said Perry. “To get a nomination of a party typically in times of extremism you have to cater to that extreme.”
“[DeSantis] could be saying, ‘Look, when the chips are down, when necessary, when it’s good for my state and my people, I know how to get things done,’” she added.
Florida governors tend to have a unique experience at handling natural disasters compared to their counterparts, given the frequency the state is hit with hurricanes and tropical storms.
Former Republican Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who is challenging DeSantis as a Democrat in 2022, also came under fire in 2009 for hugging Obama when the then-president pitched his economic stimulus plan in the state in the midst of the financial crisis.
Conservatives pounced on Crist’s literal embrace of Obama as the then-governor was running in the GOP Senate primary. Crist later announced he would run unaffiliated, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) won the Republican nomination. The hug was resurrected again in 2014 when Gov. Rick Scott (R) highlighted it in ads against Crist, who was running for governor as a Democrat.
“For DeSantis, he has seen that playbook that was handed down by Rick Scott, Jeb Bush and others, and he knows that the best thing he can do is look like somebody who is in control of the situation,” said Florida-based GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “That means dispensing with partisan politics and putting on a mindset that is best for Florida.”
It’s unclear how the meeting will play with DeSantis’s political base, much of which overlaps with Trump’s. However, Florida Republicans argue that the base understands the political importance of the Sunshine State in a general election.
“If the Republican Party is going to get back into power in Washington. D.C., Florida has to put the party on its back and will them back into power,” O’Connell said.
DeSantis has an uncertain political future beyond 2022. The governor has been floated as a potential 2024 presidential contender, but would have to contend with the possibility of Trump launching another bid for the White House.
Trump held a rally in Sarasota, on the other side of the state, on Saturday evening, but DeSantis’s office told The Hill the governor will remain in Surfside over the weekend to support local efforts and families affected by the collapse.
Meanwhile, the governor’s office denied a report this week that he asked Trump not to hold a rally in the state after the tragedy.
“Governor DeSantis is focusing on his duties as Governor and the tragedy in Surfside, and has never suggested or requested that events planned in different parts of Florida — from the Stanley Cup finals to President Trump’s rally — should be canceled,” DeSantis’s office said in a statement.
Republicans argue that Thursday’s moment was a mere blip on the radar in the relationship between the Biden and DeSantis administrations. Indeed, Biden and DeSantis had little interaction before Thursday’s briefing, speaking over the phone for the first time last week after the collapse of the condo.
On Friday, Biden’s Department of Education informed the Florida Department of Education that the state’s use of $216 in stimulus relief for $1,000 teacher bonuses would conflict with federal guidelines. The state’s department of education responded, saying the move from the Biden administration was “surprising” after all of the work Florida teachers put in during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Seems like Surfside was akin to the Christmas truce of 1914 and we are back to trench warfare,” said Florida-based Republican consultant Shawn Frost. “The caroling has ended and has been replaced by the whistling of incoming artillery from the Biden administration.”