Policy

Tempered Expectations Await Obama in Crisis-Plagued Flint

President is not expected to make any new policy announcements during trip

   

UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 23: Michigan State fan Immanuel Stinson, far left, taunts Walter Simmons, for wearing a University of Michigan shirt as Tirrell Mills, looks on, at a water distribution area at the St. Mark Baptist Church in Flint, Mich., February 23, 2016. The water supply was not properly treated after being switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River and now contains lead and iron. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
President Barack Obama heads to Flint, Michigan, on Wednesday for what's expected to be a pep talk to residents stricken by a tainted water crisis. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

President Barack Obama will tell predominantly African-American Flint, Mich., residents their country is not abandoning them, but he is not expected to announce any sweeping federal effort to end their drinking water crisis.  

The Obama administration is touting moves it already made to help the city and its water system bounce back and serving notice there won't be any major announcements Wednesday during the president’s visit. White House aides say Obama is doing what he can, and Congress must act, making the five-hour appearance largely an extended presidential pep talk. [Related: 'Little Miss Flint' Brings Obama To Michigan] “People here are bracing themselves for that,” Kimberly Saks McManaway, a political science professor at the University of Michigan-Flint, said Tuesday. “But I sense there’s a feeling that being acknowledged is better than not being acknowledged.”  

“This entire situation has given people a better understanding of federalism and the limits of what the federal government actually can do than they had before,” McManaway said. “They know [Obama’s] ability to do more is very limited this late in his presidency. So they might need his bully pulpit more than an actual policy at this moment.”  

Residents also are frustrated that Obama has waited almost four months after declaring an emergency exists in the city to make the relatively short flight, she said, adding many want Obama to explain the delay.  

The trip underscores a paradox: The first African-American chief executive is going to a city that is 56 percent black in the midst of a major health and economic crisis, but he isn’t expected to offer much more federal help or address allegations that racism played a role in the water debacle. He also needs predominantly white GOP lawmakers to allocate additional federal aid.  

An independent review panel appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, in October concluded a widespread lack of concern about poor and minority groups in Flint contributed to government officials’ sluggish reaction to residents’ complaints about toxic water that was causing illnesses. That group declared the crisis a product of “environmental injustice.”  

Fredrick Harris, who directs the Center on African-American Politics and Society at Columbia University, says he doubts the black community and its leaders will be disappointed if the president focuses mostly on other issues.  

“I think African-Americans realize he has a different vision. I mean, he talked about race early in his administration less than any Democratic president” in recent history, added Harris, who wrote a 2012 book titled “The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Fall of Black Politics.”  

Mobilization Effort

   

While Harris expects that will change in Obama’s final months in office, he doesn’t see such a message in the cards on Wednesday.  

“I expect he’ll call for more infrastructure spending, in Flint but also across the country,” Harris said. “There clearly are residual effects of racism in situations where the [Michigan] state government has displaced local leadership and communities have felt the brunt of lost revenue due to white flight. Detroit, now Flint. People can connect the dots on their own.”  

[Related: Flint's Katrina Runs Deeper Than Corroded Pipes] That is precisely the message the White House has been sending.  

The White House has no intention for Obama to use remarks he will give after a roundtable discussion with Flint residents to announce a new slate of actions he could green light without congressional approval. What Obama wants, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday, is for Congress to "mobilize some resources that could be used to address the situation."  

“We would certainly welcome a greater commitment, or frankly, any commitment from Republicans in Congress ... in responding to this situation,” Earnest told reporters last week. “The administration has marshaled significant resources to help that community respond.”  

The steps include “the urgent provision” of bottled water and filters; expanding Medicaid coverage; federal grants to local governments to address an uptick in patients; and economic assistance to deal with the water crisis’ "ripple waves."  

“There certainly is an important role for the federal government to play in responding to a situation like this,” Earnest said, adding the administration is “committed to following through on the commitments that we've made.”  

And in a message the president is expected to echo on Wednesday, Earnest added: “What's also true is there's a role for Congress to play.”  

'Tangled web' McManaway, the University of Michigan-Flint professor, indicated many residents would be further frustrated by such a presidential call on their turf because they are “pretty angry” already, feeling “like their government has failed them.”  

But she called the frustration in and around Flint a “tangled web” because residents are “seeing the same thing here,” meaning Michigan Republican lawmakers refusing to devote more state funds to the city’s water system.  

So far, however, Washington Republicans have balked at passing stand-alone Flint emergency aid legislation. The decision has irked the White House and congressional Democrats.  

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., introduced legislation Tuesday that would make it easier for the citizens of Flint, Mich., to sue the EPA over “negligence” in its role in the city’s drinking water crisis.  

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

The House has yet to take up a plan, and a Senate water infrastructure reauthorization bill that provides assistance to Flint only moved out of the Environment and Public Works Committee, 19-1, last Thursday. Because Congress is not expected to pass individual fiscal 2017 spending bills, any additional aid likely would be included in a massive year-end spending bill that should move after November’s elections.  

Municipal advocates like Carolyn Berndt of the National League of Cities look at Flint’s water crisis and say: “This is what happens when we don’t invest in our infrastructure.”  

“It is in Congress’ hands to provide significant investments in infrastructure,” Berndt said. “There is bipartisan support for the Senate water bill.”  

Obama is expected to meet with the embattled Snyder, who has been enduring calls to resign over the Flint crisis. On Monday, the White House wouldn't confirm a meeting and on Tuesday, Earnest declined to provide details about the specific topics they might discuss.  

Obama announced his trip in a letter to an 8-year-old Flint resident that the administration published on Medium, the publishing platform.  

"I want to make sure people like you and your family are receiving the help you need and deserve." Obama wrote to the girl, Mari Copney. "Like you, I’ll use my voice to call for change and help lift up your community."  

Nicknamed “Little Miss Flint,” she wrote to the president in March before she traveled to Washington for Snyder’s testimony before a congressional panel.  

Jeremy Dillon contributed to this report. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.