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Biden, DeSantis meet in Florida, pledging bipartisanship on Ian relief

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and his wife, Casey, left, join President Biden and first lady Jill Biden during a visit to southwest Florida on Wednesday. (Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images)

FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla. — As President Biden visited this storm-stricken community in southwest Florida on Wednesday, touring the damage from Hurricane Ian and pledging billions of dollars for recovery, he used the opportunity to praise one of his top political rivals and harshest critics — Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“I think he’s done a good job,” Biden told reporters when asked about the governor’s handling of the deadly storm. “We have very different political philosophies, but we’ve worked hand in glove. … In dealing with this crisis, we’ve been in complete lockstep.”

With those comments, Biden offered a nod to the kind of bipartisanship he once pledged to restore to politics, while at the same time extolling a man who could soon seek to oust him from the White House.

On Oct. 5, President Biden traveled to Ft. Myers, Fla., days after Hurricane Ian brought extensive flooding and damage to the state. (Video: The Washington Post)

DeSantis, who has previously assailed Biden as weak and has threatened to send planeloads of undocumented immigrants to the president’s home in Delaware, said Biden had been an admirable partner as Florida faced its deadliest storm in decades.

I want to thank President Biden,” DeSantis said before going on to praise the Federal Emergency Management Agency under the president’s leadership. “We were very fortunate to have good coordination with the White House and with FEMA.”

The hurricane-related detente between the president and the governor with presidential aspirations marked a rare moment of cross-party comity in a charged political climate defined by name-calling, threats and trolling. DeSantis has seen his star rise as he has leaned in to pugilistic politics, while Biden has described the decline in decorum as a threat to the nation’s soul.

Both men may have seen opportunity in embracing cooperation in the aftermath a deadly natural disaster. For Biden, who repeatedly used the word “united” on Wednesday, it was a chance to make good on his campaign pledge to calm tensions and work across the aisle.

For DeSantis, it was a chance to pivot from a combative style of governing embraced by former president Donald Trump and show that he could be presidential when the moment called for it. It’s a skill that some of Trump’s supporters say he lacked, perhaps costing him the presidency. The governor, standing before the presidential seal on a lectern that had been set up for Biden, also used the meeting to praise his own handling of the hurricane.

“One of the things you’re seeing in this response is that we’re cutting through the bureaucracy,” DeSantis said as he introduced Biden.

Before their official remarks, the two men spent more than an hour together in a storm-ravaged marina in a part of the state that had been leveled by surging waters and fierce winds. They only spoke directly for a few minutes, shaking hands but keeping largely out of earshot of reporters. The rest of the time, they were separately working their way around the marina, speaking to local officials and hurricane survivors. The scene, against the backdrop of a damaged seafood cafe and a capsized boat, gave voters a chance to see Biden and DeSantis side by side.

The governor, 44 and more than three decades younger than the 79-year-old president, was more animated with his hands during the interactions and spoke with a more forceful voice. Biden, known for being a tactile politician with a knack for comforting those experiencing grief, took off his coat and donned aviator sunglasses as he shook hands with the storm survivors and local officials he met. At one point, he draped his arm around a woman, who hugged him back.

A photographer captured an image of Biden, the woman and a man in a “Florida Cracker” T-shirt — all smiling — with DeSantis standing alone in the foreground, wearing a dour expression.

Before meeting with DeSantis, Biden surveyed the storm’s aftermath by helicopter, viewing snapped trees, destroyed businesses and waterlogged homes. He also attended a briefing with local officials and viewed more of the wreckage on foot, meeting with small-business owners and local residents in one of the communities most affected by the deadly Category 4 hurricane.

After observing the damage, Biden pledged that while the recovery effort could take years, the federal government would provide support as long as necessary.

“The only thing I can assure you is that the federal government will be here until it’s finished,” Biden said, emphasizing that in times of disaster, people across the political spectrum could come together in a time of crisis.

On Oct. 5, President Biden pledged continued federal support to Florida and its residents as it recovers from Hurricane Ian. (Video: The Washington Post)

In previewing the trip, the White House said Biden would put aside his political differences with DeSantis, who sparked the ire of the White House last month by flying dozens of Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., in an attempt to draw attention to the issue of illegal immigration.

“There will be plenty of time to discuss differences between the president and the governor, and — but now is not the time,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Tuesday.

The White House also invited Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida, and Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), who represents the area, and Biden spent time speaking with each official during his visit.

Donalds, whose district was hit hard by Ian, took to Twitter to highlight the apolitical nature of the trip, saying he was pleased to welcome the Bidens to Florida.

“Political differences aside, it’s the job of every President and First Lady to console and support Americans in need following a devastating tragedy,” he wrote on Twitter. “Before (R) and (D), we are Americans.”

Still, the bipartisan meeting was not completely free of political messages, even if Biden and DeSantis were subtle in delivering them.

Biden used his remarks to make the case that the hurricane and other extreme weather events highlighted the need to combat climate change. He also pledged that Florida would “build back better” after the storm, citing his 2020 campaign motto.

DeSantis spoke about reducing governmental “red tape” and pushed an effort for private charities to take on some of the recovery costs, thereby reducing reliance on government aid.

Both men noted the fact that power had been restored across most of the state quickly, though they offered different explanations that spoke to their political ideologies. Biden credited his work as vice president to provide millions of dollars in funding for “smart grid” technology in Florida, which he said was vital in the restoration effort. DeSantis, on the other hand, cited his push to surge hundreds of utility workers to the areas that lacked power to get it restored.

The meeting was not without political risk, as previous interactions between governors and presidents from opposing parties have sometimes been used in partisan attacks against the politicians involved.

Former Florida governor Charlie Crist, who is running as a Democrat against DeSantis in this year’s gubernatorial race, was driven from the Republican Party not long after he welcomed President Barack Obama to the state and accepted emergency aid from the federal stimulus package in 2009. Crist later said that the image of him and Obama embracing was used by his political opponents to paint him as insufficiently conservative.

Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie faced similar attacks during the 2016 presidential primary from his Republican rivals for welcoming Obama to New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy devastated his state. Images of Christie and Obama embracing circulated, and his Republican opponents accused him of “hugging” the Democratic president. Christie later said he met with Obama because he needed federal help for his state after the deadly storm.

Hurricane Ian slammed into southwestern Florida on Sept. 28, flooding homes, tearing off roofs, washing away roads and leaving thousands of people stranded without power or access to essential services.

Biden, who traveled with first lady Jill Biden and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, had already spoken by phone with DeSantis several times in recent days and pledged to provide Florida with whatever it needs to recover from the storm.

During the trip, he announced that the federal government would pay 100 percent of the costs for debris removal and other assistance for 60 days, a decision he said would probably unlock billions of additional dollars for the state.

DeSantis, who had publicly expressed concern that the original 30-day window for full reimbursement would not be enough for some local communities, thanked Biden for the “significant” extension.

The Florida Medical Examiners Commission has confirmed more than 70 storm-related deaths, but the total is probably higher, as searches continue for several missing people. Moreover, survivors of the storm face a long road to recovery as they try to repair their homes and rebuild their lives.

The area Biden visited Wednesday had been pummeled by Ian, with hundreds of homes and businesses damaged or destroyed and much of the beachfront community’s commercial area flattened.

“We took a real bad shot,” Fort Myers Beach Mayor Ray Murphy said in a video message Friday. “A real hard hit. There’s a lot of devastation down here. And more to come.”

DeSantis has been consistent in complimenting the Biden administration for its handling of the hurricane, thanking FEMA for its response efforts.

“I think FEMA’s worked very well with the state and local, and we want to continue to do it and have all hands on deck,” he said Tuesday.

Criswell, who spent time with DeSantis last week, lauded his team for its cooperation with federal officials.

DeSantis has previously criticized Biden over some of his policies, focusing most recently on immigration.

The governor’s decision to fly dozens of Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard sparked backlash among Democrats, with Biden calling the action “un-American” and “reckless.”

For his part, DeSantis drew a connection between the federal government’s handling of immigration and the hurricane, alleging on Tuesday that the Biden administration’s border policies were hampering recovery efforts.

“What has happened by having massive numbers of people coming across the border has not been good for this country,” he told reporters during a hurricane-related news conference hours before Biden arrived in the state. He claimed that three people arrested for looting in the aftermath of the storm were not in the country legally.

“I don’t have the authority to forcibly relocate people,” he added, describing the migrant flights as a “voluntary” relocation program. “If I could, I’d take those three looters, I’d drag them out by the collar and send them back to where they came from.”

The crowd at the news conference erupted into applause.

Wednesday’s event with Biden was a less combative affair, though flashes of political difference still appeared at times.

Biden used his remarks to talk about how extreme weather in places including California, Colorado, New Mexico and Oregon proved that climate change was wreaking havoc around the country.

“The one thing this has finally ended is the discussion about whether or not there’s climate change and [whether] we should do something about it,” he said as DeSantis listened.

Conservatives have been loath to link climate change to Hurricane Ian, accusing Democrats of politicizing the tragedy. DeSantis did not mention climate in his remarks.

Still, Biden took the opportunity to connect DeSantis to the issue.

“What the governor’s done is pretty remarkable,” Biden said. “The governor has recognized that there’s a thing called global warming.”

As Biden made those comments, answering questions from reporters after his official remarks ended, DeSantis quietly got into his vehicle and left the scene.