President Joe Biden visits Tampa to talk health care as 2024 race looms

The president also emphasized themes from his State of the Union address.
An unidentified individual reacts as President Joe Biden meets with supporters after his speech about Social Security and healthcare at the University of Tampa on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023 in Tampa.
Published Feb. 9|Updated Feb. 10

TAMPA — President Joe Biden took Air Force One to Tampa on Thursday to tout the accomplishments of his administration so far, and to try to convince Floridians that he is the leader who will help reduce health care costs in the state with the highest percentage of seniors in the country.

In a likely preview of messaging for his yet-to-be-announced reelection campaign, Biden made his case for why he wants to “finish the job” on several of his priorities. The policy-heavy speech in a small, packed room at the University of Tampa’s Plant Hall borrowed much of its material from his State of the Union address.

Related: Photos: President Joe Biden visits Tampa to talk about Social Security, Medicare

The focus of his visit, which was an official White House event rather than a political one, was primarily to discuss his plans on health care and to protect Social Security and Medicare programs against what he said are threats from Republicans.

He mentioned Gov. Ron DeSantis once, when he criticized the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act so that more people would be eligible for its benefits. DeSantis was also in Tampa on Thursday afternoon, delivering a speech at a luncheon at the Florida State Fair roughly 10 miles away, where he did not mention Biden.

DeSantis has also not yet announced his intentions for 2024 but is expected to run for president. (Former President Donald Trump, also a Florida resident, announced his bid in November.)

Biden’s speech at the University of Tampa only allowed for an audience of roughly 100 people plus reporters. Guests included St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and her partner, lobbyist Ana Cruz, as well as U.S. Reps. Kathy Castor and Darren Soto and former U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist.

Biden doubled down Thursday on a line of attack that he’d raised during his State of the Union about a plan released by U.S. Sen. Rick Scott of Florida. Scott’s proposal, which many other Republicans have not fully endorsed, called for all federal legislation to have to be re-passed every five years to avoid expiring.

Before Thursday’s event began, staff distributed pamphlets made to look like miniature versions of Scott’s plan, with the piece on sunsetting legislation circled in red. Biden read directly from the pamphlet at the lectern and mentioned Scott multiple times by name, adding that even though Medicare is likely to survive reauthorization, “it’s likely to get cut significantly” if it came up for a vote.

“The very idea a senator from Florida wants to put Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block every five years I find to be somewhat outrageous,” Biden said.

Since the State of the Union, Scott has been making the rounds on TV to push back against Biden, and has said suggestions that he wants to cut Social Security or Medicare “is a lie.”

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The president’s event, part of a national “blitz” by the Biden administration, comes at a time when Florida’s status as the country’s largest and most unpredictable swing state has waned. It turned deep red in 2022 when Floridians reelected DeSantis by a landslide 19 points, and Republican voter registration numbers have solidly surpassed Democrats for the first time in state history. Even Hillsborough County, where Biden was speaking, went for DeSantis in the midterms, despite typically being considered solidly blue.

President Joe Biden walks down the steps of Air Force One followed by Rep. Kathy Castor after Biden arrived Thursday in Tampa.
President Joe Biden walks down the steps of Air Force One followed by Rep. Kathy Castor after Biden arrived Thursday in Tampa. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

But the president’s visit gave a sense of solidarity to some Florida Democrats, who have generally been demoralized and leaderless since their catastrophic 2022 results.

“Florida, it’s different every election season and it’s worth fighting for,” said Rep. Castor, who traveled with the president on Air Force One. “I’m heartened that he’s here.”

Related: Joe Biden will come to Tampa to tout agenda in increasingly red Florida

Several of the elected Democrats in the audience said that Biden’s focus on delivering results on timeless issues like health care will win over voters in the next election, in contrast to what they described as Republicans’ obsession with inflammatory rhetoric that is disconnected from everyday people’s needs.

“I think Biden’s strength is he’s addressing the issues that make a difference in our community,” Welch said, adding that the city’s residents will greatly benefit from an infusion of some of the federal infrastructure money. “We have a number of needs that the president is leading on and that’s what’s important. That’s the story he should tell.”

Times staff writers Matt Cohen and Allison Ross contributed to this report.