With hurricane pummeling Florida, DeSantis turns from conservative fighter to nonpartisan leader

The Sunshine State's governor, a potential 2024 candidate who often attacks Biden and Washington elites, may have just given the public a glimpse of how he'd act as a national leader in a crisis.

Updated: September 29, 2022 - 11:51pm

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had the perfect opportunity to attack President Biden.

"Given how politicized things are at the moment, are you confident you're going to get the federal support Florida needs?" Fox News host Tucker Carlson asked DeSantis, a Republican and fierce Biden critic, during an interview Wednesday as Hurricane Ian was barreling across the Sunshine State.

At that point, the Biden administration hadn't yet responded to DeSantis' request for federal aid. But instead of attacking a political opponent, DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, took the high road, saying he's "cautiously optimistic" his state would receive what it requested.

"I actually spoke with the president, and he said he wants to be helpful," he recounted. "We did submit a request for reimbursement for the next 60 days at 100%. That's significant support, but it's a significant storm. ...

"We live in a politicized time, but when people are fighting for their lives, when their whole livelihood is at stake, when the've lost everything, if you can't put politics aside for that, then you're just not going to be able to, so I'll work with anybody who wants to help the people of southwest Florida and throughout our state."

Overnight, Biden approved DeSantis' emergency request for relief and recovery aid to help Florida rebound from a storm that's flooded wide swaths of the state, left millions without power, and killed more than a dozen people.

The interview was indicative of a striking shift by DeSantis during the lead-up to and actual landfall of Hurricane Ian. The Biden-bashing conservative warrior who recently enraged the political left by sending two planeloads of illegal immigrants to Martha's Vineyard has transformed himself into the pragmatic, nonpartisan executive leading his state through a major crisis.

"They stand by ready to help, so we appreciate that quick action," DeSantis said of the Biden administration on Saturday, thanking the president for declaring a federal state of emergency in Florida.

DeSantis has also emphasized the need for bipartisanship at this time. "We all need to work together, regardless of party lines," he told Fox News on Tuesday.

Biden has similarly put aside his political clashes with DeSantis to address Hurricane Ian.

The president spoke to DeSantis personally on Thursday, saying it was the "fourth or fifth time" they've spoken about Ian. Biden also talked with several Florida mayors and delivered the same message to them and the governor: The federal government is here to help.

"We're going to do everything we can to provide everything they need," Biden said at FEMA's National Response Coordination Center, adding that his instruction to them was to call him directly at the White House with their needs. "They know how to do that."

DeSantis' cooperation stands in stark contrast to the blunt and combative feistiness that has come to characterize his approach to Biden, Democrats, and above all the media since becoming governor. That confrontational attitude combined with bold steps to implement an unapologetically conservative policy agenda in Florida have made him one of the nation's most influential Republicans and drawn comparisons to one Donald Trump.

Despite the cooperation, several reporters and media personalities have been accused of politicizing the hurricane to target DeSantis. In one case, a journalist asked DeSantis at a press conference about alleged concerns that Florida's response has been too lax.

"Whoa whoa whoa whoa — give me a break," responded DeSantis. "That is nonsense. Stop politicizing. OK? Stop it." Florida declared a state of emergency early on, he explained.

"We've had people in here," the governor continued. "You've had counties doing ... a lot of hard work. And honestly, your trying to attack me I get. But like, you're attacking these other people who've worked very hard, and so that's just totally false." 

Hurricane Ian has been widely framed by experts and journalists as a kind of test of the leadership and governance of DeSantis, who is generally considered the greatest challenger to Trump in the 2024 Republican presidential primary should both men chose to run.

"Fail a response: hard to get reelected, and your agenda stalls," former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, who served as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's emergency management director, told Politico. "Do well, though, and it adds capital to your agenda, and sets you up for higher office."

Before the storm hit Florida, DeSantis quickly declared a state of emergency and mobilized thousands of Florida National Guard troops. He also suspended tolls and coordinated with utility companies and grocery chains about bottled water supply.

Additionally, he's urged residents to listen to local leaders. "If you're asked to evacuate, heed those warnings," DeSantis said during a news conference earlier this week. "If you don't heed those warnings, you could regret that."

When asked by reporters about Florida's emergency response, FEMA Director Deanne Criswell said, "I think the communication that we have had with the state officials has been excellent."

Effective crisis management during a national disaster can prove consequential for the fates of politicians. During Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, for example, then-freshman Rep. Bobby Jindal emerged as a competent source of answers. Two years later, he was elected governor.

In DeSantis' case, the potential 2024 contender may be giving himself a leg up against his likely competition.

As DeSantis was preparing for Ian to make landfall on Wednesday, Biden made headlines for asking if a deceased congresswoman was present at a White House food insecurity conference, fueling critics' concerns about the president's cognitive fitness.

The following day, Biden appeared to walk away from the microphone at FEMA's National Response Coordination Center prematurely, leaving Criswell and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas calling after him, to no avail.

Meanwhile, another expected 2024 candidate, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, appeared weakened after signing legislation making it easier for farmworkers to unionize in California, reversing earlier threats to veto the bill. Biden and other Democratic heavyweights throwing their support behind the bill seemed to lead Newsom to change his position.

Newsom, who's clashed with DeSantis over social media, sent a team to Florida to help with the hurricane recovery effort.

DeSantis' approach to Ian may also help on the Republican side. As part of his hurricane response efforts, DeSantis has each day held press conferences to keep the public informed, noticeably staying away from politics and focusing exclusively on the hurricane.

These press conferences have been straightforward and to the point of disseminating information, a noticeable contrast from then-President Trumps daily press briefings during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID press conferences often became the news story of the day themselves, going off script and appearing disjointed.

Early polling shows Trump leading DeSantis in most hypothetical head-to-head matchups in a 2024 GOP primary.

Ian comes in the final weeks of DeSantis' reelection fight against Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, who has suspended his campaign's advertisements in key media markets amid the hurricane.