It’s been more than 10 years since Superstorm Sandy devastated New Jersey and placed then-Gov. Chris Christie in the eye of a political hurricane. But the Republican still can’t shake the criticism that he was too hospitable to a Democratic president fighting for re-election.
“Give me a hug — give me a hug just like you did to Obama,” Vivek Ramaswamy, the upstart White House hopeful, taunted Christie during the GOP’s first 2024 presidential debate.
“You will help elect me just like you did Obama, too,” Ramaswamy continued, brushing off Christie’s retort that he was an amateur. “Give me that big hug, brother.”
Christie’s embrace of then-President Barack Obama was more figurative than literal: a handshake and pats on the back as they assessed storm damage together, as well as public praise for the federal response. That it landed a decade later as a debate punchline — a week before Hurricane Idalia battered Florida, a state led by Gov. Ron DeSantis, another Republican presidential candidate — underscores how politically fraught such moments have become.
As of late Friday, DeSantis had no plans to meet with President Joe Biden during his Saturday visit. It’s a striking difference from a year ago, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, when DeSantis joined Biden on his tour of the state. Weeks later, DeSantis won re-election by 19 points and now attacks Biden with zeal on the campaign trail.
Biden, for his part, told reporters Friday that he intended to meet with DeSantis on the trip. A statement from the governor’s office declining a meeting avoided any partisan putdowns and cited timing as a reason DeSantis would keep his distance. Idalia made landfall Wednesday, or three days before Biden’s scheduled visit. The president waited a week before visiting Florida last year after Ian.
“In these rural communities, and so soon after impact, the security preparations alone that would go into setting up such a meeting would shut down ongoing recovery efforts,” DeSantis press secretary Jeremy Redfern said.
When asked why Biden said he would meet with DeSantis, a White House official told NBC News Friday: “The president informed the governor yesterday before his visit to FEMA. The governor did not express concerns at that time. The visit was closely coordinated with FEMA, state and local officials to ensure there is no impact to ongoing response operations.”
While navigating through a natural disaster takes precedence over politics, the politics will be tough to ignore, with or without a joint appearance. Several veterans of GOP presidential campaigns suggested DeSantis will have to be careful not to seem cold or unwelcoming toward Biden.
“There are times when we have to take our team’s uniform off and do the job we were elected to do,” Bill Palatucci, a longtime Christie adviser who leads a super PAC supporting his presidential bid, told NBC News.
Aside from any risk of tagging along with a Democrat seeking re-election, there’s also an opportunity for reward if the governor is seen as leading without partisanship.
“The only way to possibly turn this to your advantage is to not be looking at it through a political lens,” said Beth Hansen, a Republican strategist who managed former Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s 2016 presidential campaign. “Nothing will kill him faster than Ron DeSantis standing up and being anything but supportive of a president coming to survey his state.”
DeSantis’ campaign has been sputtering through a reset, mired at best in a distant second place behind former President Donald Trump in primary polls. Idalia’s approach last weekend, along with a deadly racist shooting in Jacksonville, prompted DeSantis to return home from Iowa and manage the two crises playing out on national television.
The result has been a period in which DeSantis — not Trump — is leading news cycles, receiving media coverage that his cash-strapped campaign would struggle to match in paid television advertising.
DeSantis’ response to the shooting rekindled anger over his state school board’s new standards for teaching Black history and slavery and met with boos at one vigil. The hurricane poses potentially longer-term threats to his political ambitions, too. Florida’s unstable property insurance market, for which he is already under scrutiny, could be magnified as cleanup efforts begin. And his “you loot, we shoot” warning, while reminiscent of past Florida hurricanes, has a racially charged history in other contexts.
But DeSantis’ hurricane leadership has reflected positively on him in the past. His landslide re-election victory came after Biden observed that he and DeSantis had worked together “hand in glove” despite their political differences.
Hansen recalled how DeSantis directed the speedy completion of temporary bridges after Ian. She believes that’s the style of leadership that will help DeSantis appeal to voters, not the governor’s emphasis on culture war issues and his tirades against “woke” politics.
“Mostly he was being a good governor,” Hansen said. “His problem was that when it came time to run for president, he started doing something else. So could this be an opportunity? Well, yeah, but only if he tells that story on the campaign trail.”
The DeSantis campaign, grounded in Tallahassee this week, signaled that it sees such opportunities.
“No drama. No excuses. Get it done,” his campaign manager James Uthmeier posted Friday on X, formerly Twitter, above a tweet praising the governor’s response.
Christina Pushaw, DeSantis’ combative rapid response director, shared on social media Friday a Wall Street Journal editorial headlined “Hurricane Ron DeSantis.”
“If he can do the executive job, maybe his skill at small talk is immaterial,” the newspaper’s editorial board posited, referring to DeSantis’ awkwardness as a campaigner.
The campaign also called attention to remarks from conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, who pronounced on his popular Daily Wire podcast that the Idalia management was “the best of Ron DeSantis” and evidence of “why he would make a good president.”
“Ron DeSantis exhibited exceptional leadership by successfully guiding his state through another historic storm, leaving the campaign trail to focus on the needs of Floridians,” DeSantis communications director Andrew Romeo wrote in an email to reporters Thursday. “He is working to ensure the state’s recovery response is swift and well-managed. The resources that were staged prior to landfall enabled recovery to begin immediately, and he is personally ensuring that Florida is serving the needs of those impacted.”
Biden and DeSantis have spoken of each other politely this week, with the president pledging federal aid and the governor indicating that Florida would accept whatever is available. Biden approved a major disaster declaration for the state.
At a news conference Wednesday, Biden said he had not sensed any political undertones in his discussions with DeSantis about Idalia.
“I think he trusts my judgment and my desire to help,” Biden said. “And I trust him to be able to suggest … that this it’s not about politics, it’s about taking care of the people in the state.”
DeSantis agreed with that characterization.
“We have to deal with supporting the needs of the people who are in harm’s way or have difficulties, and that has got to triumph over any type of short-term political calculation or any type of positioning,” he told reporters Wednesday.
At a Friday news conference, at which DeSantis announced that electricity had been restored to 476,000 homes and businesses, the governor hinted that he might avoid meeting with the president during Saturday’s visit. He said that he had encouraged Biden in one of their phone conversions to avoid the hardest-hit areas.
“It would be very disruptive to have the whole kind of security apparatus that goes, because there’s only so many ways to get into these places,” DeSantis said. “And so, what we want to do is make sure that the power restoration continues, that the relief efforts continue, and that we don’t have any interruption in that … and I’m sure they’ll be sensitive to that.”
As for the Christie contrast, the post-Sandy tour with Obama may not be the cleanest comparison to what DeSantis is facing. Obama was in the final days of a contest that many believed would be close and that he eventually won with a comfortable Electoral College margin. DeSantis is in the middle of a primary battle, more than a year away from the 2024 general election.
“The proper way to handle it for any governor is to just show people that you’re doing your job,” Palatucci said. “You have to welcome the president, because your citizens are going to need federal help to recover. That’s what the adults do.”