President Obama will visit Flint, Mich., on Wednesday, right in the middle of a state government scandal over lead contamination of the city’s drinking water. The move has drawn accusations from Republicans that he is politicizing the crisis in an election year.
White House officials said the president will meet with local officials as well as Flint residents to hear concerns and discuss the federal response to a public-health emergency that has left many in the city of 100,000 relying on bottled water for drinking and bathing for months.
But Obama’s mere presence, while aiming to provide reassurance, represents a virtually unprecedented decision to insert himself so directly and personally into a burgeoning state mismanagement scandal that does not center on the federal government. The White House’s announcement of the visit last week, citing a written request from an 8-year-old girl, prompted renewed partisan finger-pointing among Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), state Democrats and the Obama administration.
Obama aides emphasized that the president does not intend to assign blame for the water crisis during his Flint visit, which will include remarks to a crowd of 1,000 at a school in a predominantly African American neighborhood. But the issue of accountability has reverberated after officials switched the source of Flint’s water supply in April 2014 while the city was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager.
The state’s Department of Environmental Quality failed to add required corrosion controls to prevent the leaching of lead from pipes, and water in homes was found to have toxic levels of lead well above federal limits. Michigan’s attorney general has filed criminal charges against two state officials and the city water plant operator.
Last week, Obama told a group of college reporters that his aim in Flint is to “shine a spotlight” on the threats to public health from aging infrastructure, including lead water pipes, across the country. He criticized “the people who were responsible for the health and safety” of Flint residents for “not carrying out their duties.”
The issue has also played out on the 2016 campaign trail. Democrats Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders separately toured Flint, and they participated in a debate in that city in March, while Republican presidential candidates have stayed away.
Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ronna Romney McDaniel said in an interview that she hopes Obama will draw attention to the “resiliency of the people of Flint and a recognition that a lot of steps have been taken” to address the crisis. She cited the replacement of lead service lines and the distribution of water filters and food.
Although she welcomed Obama’s visit, she said that Clinton and Sanders used their stops in Flint “more as a political issue than as an opportunity to bring people together. I think the Republican candidates did not want to interject themselves into an issue they do not fully understand.”
Snyder has apologized for the state-level missteps, but he has also faulted federal oversight agencies and expressed frustration at the Obama administration for not providing more federal funding. In January, Obama declared a federal state of emergency in Flint and dispatched officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security to help coordinate the response.
But the president declined to declare Flint a federal disaster area, which would have brought additional financial assistance.
The governor initially told reporters late last week that he was too busy to greet Obama at the airport, but Snyder quickly reversed himself and requested a meeting with the president. His aides said Tuesday that the governor would, in fact, meet Air Force One on the tarmac and participate in a meeting in Flint with the president, which the White House confirmed.
Snyder’s aides said the governor’s office had not been notified of Obama’s visit before reporters asked him about it, which led to the confusion. But the governor’s about-face drew a sarcastic reaction from White House press secretary Josh Earnest during his press briefing Monday: “I guess his schedule got a little freed up, huh?”
Snyder’s press secretary, Anna Heaton, fired back at Earnest in a Twitter message that referred to Obama’s appearance at last weekend’s White House correspondents’ dinner: “Should have left the jokes at the WHCD. Flint’s recovery warrants full attention & cooperation of fed, state & local govts.”
In an email to The Washington Post, another Snyder spokesman, Ari Adler, accused the White House of leaking notice of Obama’s visit to reporters.
“That made the whole situation awkward,” Adler wrote. “Unfortunately, some political operatives decided to make something out of nothing and complicate matters even further. A little communication can go a long way. That’s why we are continuing our efforts to coordinate tomorrow’s schedule as best we can with the limited flow of information being provided.”
Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.), who grew up in Flint and represents the city’s congressional district, said in an interview that it is Snyder who has sought to politicize a public health emergency that his administration is responsible for creating.
“He handpicked the task force to determine how this happened, and the result is that the state government is not just primarily, but almost entirely responsible,” said Kildee, who will accompany Obama to Flint. “To hear him continue to try to obfuscate that point by creating a false equivalence of responsibility between the levels of government, that’s a public relations ploy.”
Like other presidents, Obama has visited the locations of natural disasters, terrorist attacks and mass shootings in the United States. In 2010, he visited the Gulf Coast in the wake of the massive BP oil spill. But he has carefully refrained from making a personal visit to a city dealing with a local or statewide public management crisis and weighing in while there.
When Obama addressed the Illinois state legislature in February to tout bipartisanship, he did not mention a months-long state budget standoff that threatened to cut off crucial services.
Aides said the president will use his time in Flint to highlight the need for greater federal and local investment to repair and replace the nation’s aging infrastructure. Obama has routinely called on Republicans to support more funding for public-works programs, and he made it a campaign issue in 2012.
McDaniel agreed on the need to make clear that Flint is not the only community with lead service pipes and not the only place to experience high lead levels in its drinking water. But she added that “it’s important to recognize the problem and determine the best way to solve it. I’m not sure the president’s plan is the best for that.”