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DeSantis feuds with Biden White House as COVID cases rise

Published on August 5, 2021 9:43 PM

by WILL WEISSERT and BRENDAN FARRINGTON

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — It didn't take much for the White House to set Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis off. As coronavirus cases rise across the Sun Belt, President Joe Biden asked GOP governors to "get out of the way" of efforts to contain the virus.

DeSantis fired back that he did not want to "hear a blip about COVID from you, thank you," adding, "Why don't you do your job?"

The exchange was unusually direct and bitter, particularly for politicians dealing with a crisis that is killing Americans in rising numbers. But it was a sign that the now-familiar cudgels of virus politics — debates pitting "freedoms" against masks and restrictions — remain potent weapons. And DeSantis, in particular, appears eager to carry that fight into next year's midterms election, and beyond.

"He has become, I would argue, the leading voice of opposition to the Biden administration," said Rob Bradley, a Republican who recently left the Florida Senate because of term limits. "It's not a surprise to see Biden and DeSantis going at it."

The strategy comes with risks. DeSantis is up for reelection next year and is frequently mentioned as a 2024 presidential contender. His national profile has risen in large part because he spent the early part of the pandemic pushing a message that prioritized his state's economy over sweeping restrictions to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

But his state is now an epicenter of the latest surge. Florida has repeatedly broken records for hospitalized patients this week, and it and Texas accounted for a third of all new cases nationwide last week, according to the White House. DeSantis has responded by banning mask mandates in schools and arguing that vaccines are the best way to fight the virus while new restrictions amount to impediments on liberty.

"Florida is a free state, and we will empower our people," DeSantis said in a fundraising email keying off his hitting back at the president. "We will not allow Joe Biden and his bureaucratic flunkies to come in and commandeer the rights and freedoms of Floridians."

Biden's willingness to call out the Republican governor of Florida — as well as his colleagues in other hot spots like Texas — marks a new confrontational turn for him as well. For months, the White House has tried to minimize the perception of distance between the president and governors in hopes of depoliticizing the vaccination process.

It had sought to prevent a nationwide panic over the spread of the delta variant and to make good on the promise that the nation was ready to move past the pandemic. But with new cases averaging more than 70,000 a day — above the peak last summer before vaccines were available — the messaging has shifted...