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Obama Gets Earful in Flint

President visits city rocked by tainted water crisis, hears complaints, frustrations

Barack Obama drinks filtered water during a meeting in Flint, Mich., on Wednesday. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
Barack Obama drinks filtered water during a meeting in Flint, Mich., on Wednesday. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Residents of Flint, Mich., let President Barack Obama hear their frustrations about their city’s drinking water crisis. But they cheered when he asked for a glass drawn from the city’s once-toxic system, and again when he took a sip.  

Obama used his trip Wednesday to meet with residents and deliver what at times sounded like a sermon about the role government should play in Americans’ lives. He said government is an “extension” of every citizen, adding “our success depends on each other.”  

“I’ve got your back,” Obama said to tepid applause, before assuring residents that the entire country is “paying attention.” Playing the role of consoler and cheerleader-in-chief, the president said he believes the Michigan city will bounce back “stronger than ever.”  

“I see you and I hear you,” the president said.  

When Obama told the audience he realizes “all of you feel let down,” microphones picked up a man replying: “That’s right.”  

Obama at several points pleaded with the crowd, which he called “feisty,” to listen to his remarks and stop interjecting their opinions and gripes.  

[Related: Obama Drinks the Water in Flint] At one point, with his hands gripping either side of his podium as he leaned toward the audience, Obama told a heckler that yelling at him would not help end the city’s health and economic crisis.  

“I know how to stir folks up,” Obama said, “but that’s not gonna solve the problem.”  

Obama seemed to have the residents’ support in his call for greater infrastructure investment, which members of both political parties acknowledge is in poor shape. And doing so, he said, will mean governments at all levels will have to take the lead.  

In a theme likely to play a major role during the election cycle, Obama warned against a “corrosive attitude” that he said “believes a smaller government is the highest good, no matter what.”  

The president previewed a possible message for Democratic candidates up and down the ballot later this year, saying he hopes the Flint debacle will spur a “national conversation about what we need to do to invest in future generations.”  

Using Flint as an example, he criticized the notion held by many Republicans that environmental and other rules “unnecessarily burden businesses or taxpayers. Republicans typically rebut such comments with specific examples of how companies or individuals had to deal with such a regulation — typically to their financial detriment.  

He called it a “myth” that “government is always the enemy,” and warned “that attitude is as corrosive to our democracy as the stuff that results in lead in your water.” Viewing government as the problem in every instance, Obama said, “leads to a systemic neglect” and generates “callousness.”  

The Flint River is pictured flowing through downtown Flint, Mich., in February. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

As expected, Obama called on Congress to approve additional federal dollars for the city. But he did not dwell on Washington Republicans’ resistance to approving stand-alone Flint emergency aid legislation.  

And any additional federal dollars for Flint — and other troubled infrastructure systems — likely is months away unless GOP leaders alter course.  

Still, Obama vowed to try and “accelerate” the installation of new water pipes. He said it will be crucial to get locals trained and working as pipe fitter and plumbing apprentices.  

“You need to see that it’s … starting,” he told the crowd of new pipe-replacement projects, also reminding them a new water system will not be operational “overnight.” Earlier, Obama told reporters such a project could take two or more years.  

Kimberly Saks McManaway, a political science professor at the University of Michigan-Flint, said local officials, so far, have been replacing a few pipes at a time.  

“They make a big show of it each time,” she said.  

Back in the gymnasium, Obama told residents the water crisis was “man made,” adding it “was avoidable.” He faulted officials at every level of government for being inattentive.  

[Related: Tempered Expectations Await Obama in Crisis-Plagued Flint] His top goal for the visit and address seemed to be a pep talk for Flint’s citizens  

During a meeting with residents, a pastor told the president the situation there “made us feel like we didn’t count.” But Obama urged the city to not “lose hope.”  

Obama backed city officials’ plans for rebuilding the water system, and offered no new federal aid for the effort. McManaway said residents were prepared for that.  

Obama also did not address why it took months for him to set foot in Flint, or why he ignored weeks of calls to declare an emergency before doing so in January.  

McManaway said that was something Flint citizens wanted to hear. “There are people who are frustrated he didn’t come here sooner,” she said. “They’re pretty angry … and need to hear why not before now.”  

Obama’s call for greater infrastructure spending in the city was echoed by one drinking water expert.  

“Significant investment at the state level, supplemented at the federal level, is critical to repair and replace damaged infrastructure in Flint,” Elin Betanzo of the Northeast-Midwest Institute, said in an email. “The state, which was responsible for creating the crisis, is in charge of the slow, ineffective response.  

“This state-led approach is not re-building the local trust that is needed for people to consume the water again and rebuild the suffering city,” Betanzo added. “More authority should be given to local decision makers, with advice from the federal government, to make the decisions for themselves on how to address the crisis.”  

Contact Bennett at Follow him on Twitter @BennettJohnT.

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