Obama: Flint crisis caused by ‘a culture of neglect’ in government

President Obama rallied residents of Flint, Mich., on Wednesday, blaming its water crisis on a broader “culture of neglect” within government and telling citizens of the beleaguered city it “will come back” stronger.

The lead issues plaguing the city’s water supply came about because of “broader mindset, a bigger attitude — a corrosive attitude — that exists in our politics and exists in too many levels of government,” Obama said. 

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“It’s a mindset that believes that less government is the highest good, no matter what,” he said in his speech there on Wednesday.

“It’s a mindset that says environmental rules, designed to keep your water clean, your air clean, are optional or not that important. … It’s an ideology that undervalues the common good, that says we’re all on our own.”

The city of 100,000 people, Obama said, “will come back” stronger than ever, but he said political leaders, including Michigan's Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, need to acknowledge government’s role in helping American cities.

Obama’s speech hit on a key conflict of his presidency: the question of the proper role of government in American lives. 

He dismissed the “small government ideology” he said diminishes government services, especially for poor cities such as Flint. He said the federal government stands ready to help the city recover from the lead water crisis, and challenged the state government to pitch in and help out as well. 

Snyder has accepted primary blame for the water contamination problems in Flint, where residents have been drinking filtered city water for weeks. 

An emergency manager appointed by Snyder switched the city’s water source in April 2014 as a cost-saving measure, causing untreated water to corrode pipes while flowing to residents.

Officials have also blamed the Environmental Protection Agency for not acting quickly enough to alert residents to the problems in the city.

Obama praised community groups and nonprofits for swooping into Flint to help distribute water filters and other aid to resident there. But he said that should be the government’s job, not volunteers' — and that goes for more than just drinking water infrastructure. 

“Volunteers don’t build county water systems and keep lead from leeching into our drinking glasses,” he said. “We can’t rely on faith groups to reinforce bridges and repave runways at our airports. We can’t ask second graders … to raise enough money to keep our kids healthy.

"You hear a lot about government overreach. It’s not government overreach to say our government is responsible to make sure you” have clean water, he continued. 

Obama spent the afternoon in Flint, meeting with local officials to discuss the federal and state response to the crisis. 

He drank filtered tap water while there — first in a photo opportunity at a press conference, and then to broad applause during his afternoon speech. He urged residents to get filters so they can drink the water safely, and said children who drank unfiltered water should get checked for lead poisoning problems.  

Most of all, he said, he was visiting the city to hear directly from people impacted by “a tragedy that should never have happened in the United States of America,” and tell residents that things will get better, in Flint and beyond.  

“It’s not enough fix the water,” he said. “We’ve got to fix the culture of neglect. … We’ve got to fix the mindset that only leaves people cyclical at our government.”