(Bloomberg) -- Joe Biden and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis had only met once before Wednesday since the president took office, their second encounter forced upon them by yet another disaster.
In normal circumstances the two men avoid each other. DeSantis, 44, represents a Republican alternative to Donald Trump come the next presidential election, and perhaps an even more dangerous challenger to Biden’s pursuit of a second term.
But the two put on a show of solidarity for the victims of Hurricane Ian on a storm-ravaged street near Fort Myers. Biden, 79, and DeSantis, accompanied by their wives, shook hands and complimented each other -- DeSantis has “done a good job” with the storm, Biden said, while the governor thanked the president and said his administration was “cutting through the red tape.”
Nonetheless, the gathering had the unmistakable feel of a pre-fight weigh-in between a pair of political brawlers whose next meeting might come on a debate stage. While they were largely careful to skirt politics, some tension surfaced.
A subtle jab from DeSantis, after Biden surveyed storm damage from his helicopter: “I will tell you that I was in Sanibel today -- you can go over it in a helicopter and you see damage, but it does not do it justice until you are actually on the ground.”
Minutes later, a riposte from Biden: “I’m sure it’s much worse from the ground. But you can see a whole hell of a lot of damage from the air.”
But the afternoon largely entailed niceties.
“We have very different political philosophies,” Biden told reporters accompanying him. “But we’ve worked hand-and-glove.”
Both men avoided the kind of intimacy that has led to controversy after past meetings between presidents and governors of opposite parties. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had to repeatedly deny that he had hugged President Barack Obama while the two men surveyed damage from storms that hit his state in 2011 and 2012.
While their greetings were better described as warm handshakes, the moments damaged the Republican politically.
DeSantis thanked the president and the first lady for visiting, praised the administration’s response, and credited Biden for extending federal assistance to remove debris and pay for emergency services. Biden pledged assistance would continue as long as it was needed.
The two leaders largely maintained separate orbits, with spouses and aides serving as human buffers. But neither completely shed their political instincts. As DeSantis met with constituents, he showered praise on political ally – and frequent Biden critic -- Elon Musk for providing emergency stations with internet connectivity through his Starlink satellite system.
And he highlighted a new charitable organization launched in recent days by his wife, saying it was a way to reach people who might not be eligible for assistance from the federal government. That effort has been particularly important as DeSantis has faced tough coverage over welcoming federal dollars to help Florida despite voting, as a congressman, against funding to assist the victims of Sandy.
Their joint appearance – announced only Tuesday, days after Biden had indicated he planned to visit the state – amounted to just enough time together that both could avoid criticism that pettiness alone had driven them apart.
Biden seemed largely content to let the event illustrate the thesis of his presidency: that he’s a rare figure able to bridge partisan divides and unite the country in times of crisis.
Praise for DeSantis
He praised DeSantis for a “remarkable” job, and did not criticize the governor when asked about the state’s struggles with its property insurance market. Still, the president also appeared to relish the opportunity to contradict the doddering, passive depiction that critics – including DeSantis – often paint of him.
Biden caused a small maelstrom on social media when microphones caught him deploying salty language in conversation with a heavily sunburned Floridian, who responded with hearty guffaws.
The president made sure to plug the assistance the state had already received through his signature infrastructure law. And he opened his formal remarks with a sharp rebuke of those skeptical about climate change.
“I think the one thing this is finally ended is a discussion about whether or not there’s climate change and we should do something about it,” Biden said.
It’s a point Biden has made before as he’s toured drought, fire, and storm damage across the country. But the moment had particular resonance as he stood in front of DeSantis, who has sought to prohibit his state from investing in environmental, social and governance funds that claim to take into account the impact of climate change.
This isn’t the first display of forced bonhomie between Biden and DeSantis. The pair traded praise for each other last year after the collapse of a condo building in Surfside, Florida.
But both seemed to recognize – particularly with the 2024 election fast approaching – the practical and political benefits of once again burying the hatchet for an afternoon.
“On things relating to dealing with this crisis, we’ve been completely lockstep,” Biden said.
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.