President Biden is set to meet with Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday to discuss the state and federal response to Hurricane Ian, a meeting that offers a possible preview of the 2024 White House contest.
The meeting will take place in Fort Myers where state and local officials, including DeSantis, are expected to brief Biden on rebuilding efforts underway after the storm. The meeting will require Biden and DeSantis, who have clashed publicly over immigration, the coronavirus and other issues for months, to portray a united front in the face of natural disaster, a result one political observer said could help both politicians.
“They both need each other at this moment,” said Davis Houck, a professor of political communication at Florida State University. “The president is appearing with a popular Republican governor and critic, which will make him look bipartisan.”
“DeSantis, who is up for re-election this year, gets to share a stage with the commander-in-chief and show voters a different image than the one they might only know of him as a partisan fighter,” Houck added.
DeSantis is widely viewed as a likely challenger to Biden. While both Biden and DeSantis allies deny the visit is political at all, experts say that won’t stop the members of their respective political parties from seeing it that way.
“Both sides are going to be sizing each other up, especially since DeSantis has been pitched as the successor to former President Donald Trump,” said Brian Fonseca, the director of the Gordon Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University. “Everyone will be looking at the optics carefully.”
The visit comes as the White House has mobilized the federal government to provide resources and help to Florida and other states impacted by Hurricane Ian. While officials on the ground have praised the White House’s responses, Republicans have criticized the White House for what they say is a series of missteps.
The administration came under fire last week after it emerged that Biden had not spoken directly to DeSantis as the hurricane barreled toward Florida. Although the president had spoken to several mayors with cities in the path of the storm, GOP lawmakers criticized the White House for purportedly snubbing the governor.
The controversy quickly died after Biden called DeSantis the same day as the story broke. But the White House faced more criticism after Vice President Kamala Harris said “equity” needed to be at the center of efforts to respond to climate-related disasters.
Republicans, including DeSantis, were quick to lambast the comments as inappropriate.
“I think she is trying to play identity politics with a storm and a natural disaster,” the governor said during a Monday appearance on Fox News Channel. “I think it’s ridiculous.”
The White House has defended Harris, arguing the comments were taken out of context.