What Can Obama Accomplish in Flint?

It is hard to imagine his visit will produce a vast material change in the beleaguered Michigan city.

President Obama greets Governor Rick Snyder in Flint, Michigan, on Wednesday. (Carlos Barria / Reuters)

The presidency carries some strange expectations—a fact that Barack Obama, nearing the home stretch of his tenure in the White House, surely knows well by now. The president holds great power and is called the leader of the free world, yet his power—even in this age of a strong executive—is constrained on all sides. Those limitations tend to be misunderstood by people who want his help, thanks to pervasive belief in what Brendan Nyhan calls the “Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency.”

President Obama is visiting Flint, Michigan, a city poisoned by lead and bacteria in its water, on Wednesday. During his visit, Obama will be briefed by officials on relief efforts, meet with community leaders—including 8-year-old “Little Miss Flint" Mari Copeny—and deliver remarks. He will meet with Governor Rick Snyder, who has come in for harsh criticism for his handling of the crisis.

Nowhere is the tension between expectations and reality on display more prominently than in the disaster photo-op. When something goes wrong, the American people expect the president to be there. Sometimes, there’s a clear imperative to help morale: President George W. Bush’s appearance atop the rubble at Ground Zero was likely the finest moment of his presidency, a crucial speech that rallied a rattled nation. Other times, as Noah Gordon pointed out when politicians of both parties called for Obama to visit the border amid an influx of underage immigrants, the goal is not nearly as clear.

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.

Finally, Obama’s election seemed to offer a chance for progressives to rebuild faith in government, which had been badly undermined during the Bush years. Some analysts, such as Michael Grunwald, argue that in fact Obama has flexed government’s muscles to great effect, but public trust in the government has continued to slump over his time in office:

Trust in Government
Pew Research Center

The Flint crisis is a reminder of government’s shortcomings. Snyder has sought to portray the crisis as a failure of every level of government, from local to national. He seems to protest too much: As a panel he appointed to investigate it found, it was the state government that bears the brunt of the blame. Local government was effectively cut out of the loop by an emergency manager Snyder appointed. It is true that EPA did not cover itself in glory in Flint, though. One EPA regulator, Miguel del Toral, voiced concerns earlier, and badgered state and local officials for more information. But del Toral was effectively sidelined, apparently after state officials complained to his boss. (Del Toral lashed out at the agency.) Once the crisis broke into national news, EPA’s regional administrator was fired. EPA boss Gina McCarthy is traveling to Flint with Obama.

No matter how he wishes to fix Flint’s water problem, or the nation’s broader infrastructure challenges, Obama will run into one intractable problem: Congress. Fixing Flint’s lead pipes is estimated to cost $55 million. It could cost as much as $275 billion to deal with lead pipes elsewhere around the country, according to one estimate. While a bipartisan deal in Congress would have provided $250 million for lead mitigation, Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, put a hold on the bill, accusing lawmakers of using Flint “as an excuse to funnel taxpayer money to their own home states.”

With overall infrastructure issues, it’s the same story. Every year in his State of the Union, Obama has made a plea for major infrastructure spending. Every year, Congress shrugs and declines to act. Because the president is not the Green Lantern, there’s little else he can do except harangue, cajole, and plead with Congress.

The presidency affords its holder impressive symbolic power. By traveling to Flint, Obama will give the city new attention. The residents who he meets may take great comfort from his presence, and Mari Copeny will never forget her meeting with the president. It’s hard to imagine, however, that his visit will produce a vast material change for the beleaguered city.