What President Obama hopes to achieve with Flint visit

President Obama will pay a visit to the troubled Michigan city in the midst of what many say is the consequence of running a state like a business. 

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Obama boards Air Force One on Wednesday at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., en route to Flint, Mich., to talk with community members about the ongoing water crisis.

President Obama will visit Flint today today as questions of governance and water management continue to cast a pall on the city.

Mr. Obama's visit to the Michigan city will include visits with officials, including much-maligned Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, as well as families affected by the water crisis.

The presidential visit comes after one young girl, 8-year-old Amariyana Copeny, wrote to Obama for help in resolving the water crisis. Obama wrote back to Amariyana, saying, "Like you, I'll use my voice to call for change and help lift up your community."

Flint's water problems began in 2014, when the city began to draw its water supply from the Flint River to save money. Last October, one year after the switch, Michigan officials finally declared a public health emergency, due to elevated lead contaminants. 

Obama is likely to ask Congress for more emergency funding for the city after his visit today. Prior attempts to provide federal resources specifically for Flint have failed, although the city did receive $150 million from a larger water infrastructure bill.

City health officials insist that filtered water (now purchased from Detroit) is clean enough to drink, but Amariyana disagrees. She told CNN last week, "It has lead in the water and it gives you really bad headaches as well and you smell like bleach and fish."

The White House addressed the role the EPA and federal government played in the response to Flint's water crisis in a fact sheet.

Since the scandal broke, and the public became aware that Flint's contaminated water had been ignored or downplayed by state officials for a year before they declared a public health emergency, commentators and critics have questioned Michigan's response to the crisis.

Many critics say that Flint's problems are evidence of the difficulties associated with running a state like a business.

Governor Snyder entered office promising to reform Michigan's economy by running the state like a company. In 2011, one year after his election, the state took over Flint and appointed four emergency managers with the power to make budgetary decisions.

One cost-saving measure was switching the city's water supply to the Flint River, which officials estimated could save the city $19 million over eight years. The step was implemented in 2014.

Although studies of government e-mails have shown that Synder's aides were aware that the switch had caused problems with the water supply, critics say that state government was more concerned about the cost of switching back to Detroit's water supply than it was about reports of health risks to Flint's population.

"It's sort of a single dimension for decision-making – thinking that, if it can't be solved on a spreadsheet, it can't be solved," said Dennis Schornack, a former Snyder advisor, to the Detroit Free Press earlier this year.  "The people of Flint got stuck on the losing end of decisions driven by spreadsheets instead of water quality and public health."

Snyder has denied he knew about the problem before October and denied that the decision intended to put finances above public safety, tweeting, "This was never about money." 

E-mails between government officials show that many decisions surrounding the Flint water supply were indeed financially motivated, leading to a faltering water plant and the decision not to reconnect to Detroit, even after the health consequences of the switch became clear.

Last week, Obama spoke about nationwide public health problems associated with water infrastructure.

"We have underinvested in some of our basic infrastructure that we rely on for our public health," Obama said. "Hopefully, it will give me a chance to speak to the nation as a whole about how we need to ensure that our air is clear, our water is clean, and that our kids are safe."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify when Governor Snyder found out about the water contamination.

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