Throughout his term, Obama has been called on time and again to serve as “comforter-in-chief” to the nation. The role isn’t unique to him, though the many high-profile mass shootings during his term have offered him repeated unwanted opportunities to speak to the country. They’ve also been some of his most emotional moments, as the often detached, Spock-like Obama chokes up and sometimes weeps. Those appearances have also demonstrated some of the shortcomings of a presidential photo-op. When he went to Oregon following the shooting at Umpqua Community College, Obama was met with protests by some residents who didn’t want him there.
There are plenty of other risks in showing up. The president, with the huge entourage of security, press, and aides he brings, can get in the way. Or he risks an image like the photograph of George W. Bush—about as iconic as the 9/11 picture—surveying the damage of Hurricane Katrina, which came to symbolize accusations that he was aloof to the disaster.
Flint isn’t the same as the aftermath of a hurricane, tornado, or earthquake. Unlike them, it is a human-caused disaster: the result of economic crisis, perversion of democracy, sloppy management, and appalling unresponsive government officials. Unlike them, Flint is a long-running disaster—far too long. It runs from Flint’s emergency manager deciding to switch to the Flint River as a water source in 2013, through the actual switch in 2014, up until state and federal officials began to respond seriously to the crisis in late 2015.
For some Flint residents, having the president visit is clearly a validating moment—something that shows the city has the nation’s attention, and that the federal government is trying to help. NBC News spoke to some of them. “Obama could make us a priority,” said Laura MacIntyre.
There’s also a danger, however, that Obama’s visit could simply spotlight the many ways in which the president is powerless to act, and the ways in which he has failed to help places like Flint, a majority-black city.
Obama entered office bringing high hopes for African Americans. On many issues, he has won praise for speaking about issues of race with a sensitivity and understanding that no white president could have brought to bear. But in other cases, blacks still lag. The African American unemployment rate is still far above the national average, years after the recession ended. Polls show that most people think race relations have gotten worse. No one could fairly expect Obama to reverse centuries of institutionalized racism in American society, but the great travesty of environmental injustice in Flint stands as a reminder of how much work has not yet been done.
Obama also entered office with plans to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure. He was elected just 15 months after a bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, killing 13. Engineers offered dire analyses of the state of bridges, roads, and pipelines around the country. Despite the $150 billion spent on infrastructure in the 2009 stimulus package, the state of U.S infrastructure remains very poor.