Anthony Man, Shira Moolten
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
President Joe Biden is on his way to Fort Myers to survey damage inflicted on southwest Florida by Hurricane Ian, get a briefing on the response and recovery efforts, and meet with people impacted by the storm.
Biden’s personal meetings — with residents and business owners affected by Hurricane Ian plus crews working on rescues, restoring power, distributing food and water and removing debris — is one of the most important parts of a president’s job: serving as the nation’s consoler-in-chief.
Inevitably, there’s also a political dimension.
The interaction between the president and Gov. Ron DeSantis will be keenly watched. The Republican governor is a fierce critic of the Democratic president, though he has temporarily paused his attacks on Biden as Ian threatened, then slammed the state. It’s in both men’s interest to avoid appearing overtly political, and instead show they’re acting in the public interest.
It’s the second time DeSantis — a possible candidate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination — has muted his constant criticism of Biden. The first time was in the aftermath of the 2021 collapse of the Champlain Towers South Condominium in Surfside. When Biden visited Surfside in the aftermath of that disaster, DeSantis sat respectfully at a Biden-run meeting of federal, state and local officials.
It isn’t clear just how much time the president and governor will spend together. “We know that the governor has a busy schedule as he is dealing with the aftermath of a catastrophic storm,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday, adding that she couldn’t “speak specifically to where he’s going to be at every step of the day.”
Jean-Pierre said the president’s visit would be “above politics.”
“When it comes to delivering and making sure that the people of Florida have what they need, especially after Hurricane Ian, we are one — we are working as one. And so that is what the president is going to be doing when he’s there in Florida,” Jean-Pierre said, adding she expected Biden and DeSantis to talk about “what else are the needs in Florida to get to a place of recovery, to get to a place of rebuilding.”
The Florida trip comes two days after Biden visited Puerto Rico to inspect damage inflicted by Hurricane Fiona.
The White House said the president and First Lady Jill Biden, who is traveling with him to Florida, would survey storm-ravaged areas via helicopter en route to Fishermans Wharf in Fort Myers.
He’ll then have an afternoon briefing with federal, state and local officials. Then he and the first lady will meet with small-business owners and local residents and meet with those aiding in rescue, recovering and rebuilding.
Many of those activities will be private.
Later, the president will make public remarks.
Jean-Pierre said Tuesday that the president was traveling to the state to “reaffirm his commitment to supporting the people of Florida as they recover and rebuild from the devastating storm.”
Presidential actions in the aftermath of a storm are remembered — especially when they don’t go well.
Examples are legion, including then-President Donald Trump tossing rolls of paper towels to Puerto Ricans when he visited the island after Hurricane Maria 2017.
Former-President George W. Bush later conceded that his administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was a low point of his presidency. He was panned for a decision to fly over New Orleans, Gulfport, Biloxi and Mobile, viewing damage from Air Force One instead of visiting in the immediate aftermath and pilloried for praising his Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator with the words “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” The performance of then-FEMA Administrator Michael Brown was widely condemned as ineffective.
By contrast, Bush was praised for rallying the nation when he stood on rubble to speak after the 2001 terrorist attacks that brought down the World Trade Center in New York.
Post-disaster presidential visits can have other political consequences, including when then-President Barack Obama visited New Jersey in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy in 2012, just before the president’s re-election.
He was embraced by the state’s then-Republican governor, Chris Christie. The image of the two men together became a political albatross around Christie — even used in attack ads against him — as he unsuccessfully sought the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.