Joe Biden, the president of the United States, has surveyed the destruction caused by Hurricane Idalia in the state of Florida but did not meet with Governor Ron DeSantis, a potential presidential rival, who opted not to come.
Biden offered support and condolences to those affected by Idalia on Saturday after taking an aerial tour and receiving a briefing from local officials as well as first responders in Live Oak, a town hit hard by the storm.
He saw houses with fallen trees on them and said that no one “intelligent” could doubt that climate change was happening.
“I’m here today to deliver a clear message to the people of Florida and throughout the southeast,” Biden said as he spoke outdoors, near a church that had parts of its sheet metal roof peeled back by Idalia’s powerful winds and a home half crushed by a fallen tree.
“As I’ve told your governor, if there’s anything your state needs, I’m ready to mobilise that support,” he continued. “Anything they need related to these storms. Your nation has your back and we’ll be with you until the job is done.”
But politics hung over Biden’s trip.
The president, a Democrat who has spoken to DeSantis multiple times this week, said on Friday that he and the Republican governor would meet in person. But DeSantis’s spokesperson said on the same day that the governor had no plans to meet Biden, adding that “the security preparations alone that would go into setting up such a meeting would shut down ongoing recovery efforts”.
The governor’s decision caught the White House off guard.
Asked if he was disappointed that DeSantis did not come, Biden said, “No, I’m not disappointed.”
“He may have had other reasons. … But he did help us plan this,” Biden told reporters. “He sat with FEMA and decided where we should go where would be the least disruption,” he added, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Biden said he was pleased that Senator Rick Scott, a Republican former governor of Florida, had come despite their disagreements on many issues.
DeSantis, 44, spent the day about 80km (50 miles) south, touring small communities along Florida’s Gulf Coast, according to his official schedule.
DeSantis is running for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination to remove Biden from the White House but trails former President Donald Trump in opinion polls.
Biden and DeSantis have spoken regularly this week about the hurricane, which pummelled Florida’s Big Bend region with Category 3 winds of nearly 200km/h (125 mph). On Wednesday, the president said politics had not crept into their conversations.
It could have been politically perilous for DeSantis to be photographed with Biden overlooking storm damage now, as the nominating race intensifies. Though he trails far behind Trump, DeSantis leads the other Republican candidates in the race.
When Biden visited Florida after Hurricane Ian last year, a photo of DeSantis standing awkwardly to the side as the president talked animatedly with a local couple went viral, highlighting the difference between the two politicians’ styles of public interaction.
Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who is also running for the 2024 Republican nomination, drew criticism for his praise of then-President Barack Obama in 2012 when the Democrat visited his state following superstorm Sandy.
During his visit to Live Oak, Biden received praise from Republican Senator Scott for declaring an official disaster early on.
The president, for his part, complemented Scott and DeSantis.
“The governor was on top of it,” Biden said.
FEMA said Biden and DeSantis’s failure to meet will not have any effect on recovery efforts.
Deanne Criswell, who heads FEMA, told reporters that search and rescue operations had wrapped up and officials were now focused on restoring power to affected regions. Less than 1 percent of Floridians were without power as of Saturday, she said, though that figure was significantly higher in some areas directly affected by the hurricane.
The post-Idalia political consequences are high for both Biden and DeSantis.
As Biden seeks re-election, the White House has asked for an additional $4bn to address natural disasters as part of a supplemental funding request to Congress. That would bring the total to $16bn and highlight that intensifying extreme weather is imposing ever higher costs on US taxpayers.
DeSantis, a sharp critic of Biden, has built his White House bid around dismantling what he calls Democrats’ “woke” policies. The governor also frequently draws applause at Republican rallies by declaring that it is time to send “Joe Biden back to his basement”, a reference to the Democrat’s Delaware home, where he spent much of his time during the early lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But four months before the first ballots are to be cast in Iowa’s caucuses, DeSantis still lags far behind Trump, the Republican primary’s dominant early frontrunner. And he has cycled through repeated campaign leadership shakeups and reboots of his image in an attempt to refocus his message.
A major political group supporting DeSantis’s candidacy also has halted its door-knocking operations in Nevada, which votes third on the Republican presidential primary calendar, and several states holding Super Tuesday primaries in March – a further sign of trouble.