Joe Biden went to Florida, the scene of a horrific building collapse, on Thursday to show how much he cares about ordinary folk and that his administration is on top of the situation.
Presidents do this sort of thing all the time, and the public grants them the opportunity for a dramatic photo-op — usually comforting families of the fallen. It’s expected and highly symbolic. The people affected certainly appreciate it.
But Biden also knew he was going to rub shoulders with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Both men have received praise from the local and national press for their response to the crisis, but both men were also aware that appearing in the same photos and TV frames would set media tongues wagging about a possible match-up in the 2024 presidential race.
For Biden, he thinks he’s playing with house money. His appearance has no downside and only helps buttress his “bipartisan” credentials.
DeSantis, on the other hand, may have wandered into a minefield.
Speaking at a command briefing near the site of the deadly disaster, DeSantis — seated beside Biden — said the president had “recognized the severity of this tragedy from day one, and you’ve been very supportive.”
The governor went on to assess that cooperation between local, state and federal partners seeking to manage the fallout from the building collapse “has been great,” telling Biden: “You guys have not only been supportive at the federal level, but we’ve had no bureaucracy.”
“I promise you,” the president replied, “there will be none.”
DeSantis said the president “recognized the severity of this tragedy from day one, and you’ve been very supportive.”
A briefing on a disaster that may have killed more than 160 people is not a place for a political brawl to break out. DeSantis was trying to walk a very fine line between his partisan instincts and the fact that he needed Biden’s help.
The governor must also have wondered how his words of praise were playing at Mar-a-Lago. DeSantis’s main goal in recent weeks has been to be very careful not to pull the lion’s tail and incur the wrath of Trump. Praising the man who Trump feels stole the election from him probably didn’t go down very well in the former president’s circle.
Resting his hand on DeSantis’ arm, Biden said the governor and Mayor Charles Burkett “have been completely open with me” in navigating the crisis, and he indicated it was likely the federal government would be able “to pick up 100 percent of the costs” associated with Florida’s emergency response.
“There’s going to be a lot of pain and anxiety and suffering and even the need for psychological help in the days and months that follow,” Biden said. “And so, we’re not going anywhere. For real.”
DeSantis made all the right noises about cooperation and bipartisanship, but like Biden’s insincere efforts to “reach across the aisle,” it will only last as long as it’s politically advantageous for him to do so. It will be DeSantis’s job to portray Biden as the devil incarnate and Democrats as the mortal enemy of democracy.
He has to do that because Biden will do it first to him and probably louder. Consider the sit-down between DeSantis and Biden as the opening act of the drama of 2024 — deceptively peaceful but roiling underneath.