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Obama tells Flint residents: ‘I’ve got your back’

President Obama took a sip of filtered tap water during his remarks Wednesday in Flint, Mich.
President Obama took a sip of filtered tap water during his remarks Wednesday in Flint, Mich.(Doug Mills/New York Times)

FLINT, Mich. — President Obama arrived Wednesday to check in on a disadvantaged city that has been denied a most elemental government service — safe drinking water — but his visit turned into an outpouring of emotion from a community aggrieved by years of neglect from its elected officials.

The president’s day in a city that has become a national symbol of disenfranchisement was intended to bolster confidence over a public health crisis related to toxic levels of lead contamination in Flint’s tap water. Obama drank from a glass filled with filtered Flint water to drive home his message that recovery efforts, slow off the mark, were finally making gains.

Yet it seemed that it was the president’s mere presence that most buoyed the predominantly African-American crowd of 1,000 at Northwestern Community High School, where signs above the school’s water fountains read ‘‘Do not drink until further notice.’’

‘‘I see you and I hear you,’’ Obama told the crowd. ‘‘A lot of you are scared; all of you feel let down. . . . But I want to tell you that I've got your back, that we’re paying attention.’’

The president met with local and federal officials to review the response to a problem that began in April 2014, when a state-appointed city administrator approved a switch of Flint’s water source without required chemicals to prevent lead from being leached off water-service pipes. Obama also spoke with local residents and he singled out for praise Mari Copeny, an 8-year-old whose letter to the president was cited by the White House as the spur for his visit.

Obama emphasized that he was not interested in assigning blame, but the crowd clearly was: Boos and catcalls filled the auditorium when Governor Rick Snyder, who has apologized for the state’s mishandling of the crisis, made brief remarks. State officials initially denied there was a problem after residents began complaining of rashes and other reactions to water that had turned brown. The Republican governor offered his first acknowledgment of the contamination last fall.

Snyder, taking the stage at the high school, apologized for a second time and tried to empathize with the crowd.

‘‘I understand why you’re frustrated,’’ he said. ‘‘You didn’t create the problem. Government failed you.’’

The crowd remained unconvinced, and Snyder looked uncomfortable as he quickly finished his remarks, with audience members trying to shout him down. By contrast, Obama, on the same stage a short time later, drew hearty and extended cheers and applause.

‘‘Can I get some water?’’ Obama asked after he coughed during his remarks, drawing cheers from the crowd. An aide handed him a glass a few minutes later and he took a sip, after noting it had been filtered.

The Obama administration sent Flint $5 million after declaring a state of emergency in the city in January. On Wednesday, Obama announced additional resources — a $10 million allocation from Health and Human Services for new Medicare facilities, including $1 million to test and treat residents for lead poisoning or other complications from the water.

Meeting with federal and local officials at an area food bank, Obama told reporters that Flint ‘‘had suffered a hard time and neglect long before this particular crisis.’’ He added that the water contamination was ‘‘a symptom of the broader issue and that is a city that has lost a lot of resources, lost a lot of its tax base, was cutting a lot of its services’’ for years.

‘‘Our goal here,’’ the president added, ‘‘is to use this moment in which everybody’s attention is focused to see if we can start rebuilding Flint in a better direction. I'm confident we are going to do that if we are all working together.’’

In an attempt to boost spirits, he also made the point that he was a child during an era when there were far fewer rules banning lead-based paint and he ended up healthy. ‘‘I'm sure when I was 2 years old I was somewhere eating a paint chip,’’ he said with a chuckle, and he encouraged parents to get medical checkups for their children. ‘‘They will be fine . . . as long as we’re looking after them.’’

The president’s visit had drawn criticism from some Republicans, who said he was exploiting the political divide over the socioeconomically disadvantaged city. The two Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, had visited Flint, including for a debate in March, while the GOP candidates have stayed away.

In his remarks, Obama did not talk about his Republican rivals directly, but he emphasized that the political debate over public investment in critical infrastructure was fundamentally one about protecting the public good and being fair to disadvantaged communities. Flint’s overseers had been attempting to cut costs when they approved the switch in water source for the city’s tap water.

‘‘This was a man-made disaster. This was avoidable,’’ Obama said. ‘‘Part of what contributed to this crisis was a broader mind-set, a bigger attitude, a corrosive attitude that exists in our politics. . . . It undervalues the common good and says, ‘We’re all on our own.’ ”

Referring obliquely to Republicans, Obama said politicians with that mind-set maintain an ‘‘attitude that is as corrosive to our democracy as the stuff that resulted in the lead in your water. It leads to systemic neglect and carelessness and callousness.’’