WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden will visit hurricane-ravaged Florida and promise federal, state and local governments will come together to help rebuild homes, businesses and lives — keeping political silence for now to focus on those People who need help.
Hurricane Ian has killed at least 84 people, including 75 in Florida, with hundreds of thousands waiting to restore power. Biden plans to meet with residents and small business owners in Fort Myers, Florida, on Wednesday and thank government officials who have provided emergency aid and debris removal.
With the midterm elections just a month away, the crisis threatens to bring political rivals together, at least for a while. Ian’s 150-mph winds and severe storm surge knocked out power to 2.6 million people in Florida last week. Many people in Florida lack access to food and water.
Joining Biden in Florida will be two of his most prominent Republican critics: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Rick Scott, according to White House and Scott spokesman. White House press secretary Karin Jean-Pierre said on Tuesday that they should not focus on political differences.
Hurricane Ian may have long since disappeared from Florida, but crews on the ground were pushing on Tuesday to restore power and look for anyone still trapped.
“There will be a lot of time, a lot of time, to discuss the differences between the president and the governors — but this is not the time,” Jean-Pierre told reporters at a White House briefing. “We’re one of them when it comes to delivering and making sure the people of Florida have what they need, especially after Hurricane Ian. We’re working as one.”
Biden typically waits to visit the scene of a natural disaster to ensure his presence and accompanying motorcade don’t hinder relief efforts.
Before the storm hit, the president had planned to visit Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, last week, where he planned to highlight efforts to strengthen Social Security and Medicaid. Biden accused Scott of wanting to end both programs by proposing that federal laws expire every five years, even though the Florida senator said he wanted to keep them.
Biden and DeSantis have had many disagreements in recent years on how to fight COVID-19, immigration policy and more. They have sparred in recent weeks over the governor’s decision to fly immigrants or buses to Democratic strongholds, a move Biden called “reckless.”
The hurricane changed the purpose and tone of Biden’s first visit to Florida this year.
DeSantis confirmed Tuesday that he would meet with Biden in the hurricane zone, praising the administration’s Federal Emergency Management Agency for declaring a state of emergency before Ian made landfall.
“It’s huge because everyone is giving their all. They know they’re capable of doing it,” DeSantis said. “We appreciate it. I think FEMA is working very well with the state and locality.”
The White House’s message of bipartisan unity marks a departure from Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, who at times threatened to halt aid to Democratic officials who have criticized him, including the governor. Gavin Newsom of California and Andrew Cuomo of New York. At other times, Trump has been insensitive or clumsy in responding to people’s suffering.
Trump threatened to withhold federal funds from California after wildfires, said his state officials were responsible for the deadly fires, and tweeted in 2018: “Billions of dollars are lost every year, all because of forests. Bad management. Immediate remediation or no more Fed payments!”
A politician’s response to natural disasters has the power to make or break a political career.
As Florida’s governor for eight years, Jeb Bush has maintained a steady response to a string of hurricanes and has earned a stellar approval rating. President George W. Bush and Louisiana lawmakers had a more difficult response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which still affects their legacy.
During a natural disaster, “the best political strategy is no political strategy, you work.”
Christie ended up being targeted by some in his own party who believed his warm welcome to Obama helped cement the Democratic re-election, but he has no regrets.
“Fundamentally, that’s what the government is about, it’s about protecting the safety and well-being of the people,” Christie said in an interview Tuesday. “The president, Gov. DeSantis and (Senator) Marco Rubio. The only thing (Marco Rubio) should think about is the turmoil and tragedy that happens in people’s lives and how we can make it better.”
Christie points out that the comparison to Sandy is inaccurate — Biden himself is two years away from becoming a candidate, and DeSantis is weeks, not days, away from voters in his reelection bid . But Christie said any attempt to gain political points would be warned in the polls.
“Playing games is not what this thing is about,” Christie said. “It’s a very transparent time and people will get it – it’s not what they want and they’ll punish you for it.”
Associated Press writers Zeke Miller and Seung Min Kim in Washington and Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Florida contributed to this report.
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