• Politics

President Obama to the People of Flint: ‘I’ve Got Your Back’

4 minute read

President Barack Obama visited Flint, Mich., for the first time in the wake of the city’s water-contamination crisis to deliver a message to the people of the poor, largely minority community: he’s got their back.

“I see you and I hear you, and I want to hear directly from you about how this public-health crisis has disrupted your lives,” President Obama said during his speech at Flint Northwestern High School. “I’ve come here to tell you that I’ve got your back.”

President Obama said Wednesday that aside from fixing the city’s infrastructure and getting a strong handle on the health crisis caused by the city’s decision to switch its water source in spring 2014, the government has to fix the “culture” that led to that decisionmaking.

“Part of what contributed to this crisis was a broader mindset, a corrosive attitude that exists in our politics that exists in too many levels our government,” Obama said Wednesday.

The President’s argument was a thinly veiled attack on conservative politicians who have argued against government overreach and the elimination of departments like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in efforts to save money. President Obama said Wednesday that a consequence of that way of thinking is “an under investment in things that we all share.”

Obama said the problems in Flint were an “extreme and tragic” case of lead-contamination issues cities are facing across the country, noting reports from Mississippi, New Jersey and other states. An Associated Press analysis of EPA data found that “1,400 water systems serving 3.6 million Americans exceeded the federal lead standard at least once between the start of 2013 and last September.”

“Flint is just a tip of the iceberg in terms of us reinvesting in our communities,” the President said. “It’s self destructive when we don’t invest in our communities.”

Earlier on Wednesday, President Obama visited with federal officials and met with residents of Flint who spoke to him at length about the troubles they’re dealing with as a result of the crisis. The President also drank filtered Flint water — both on stage at the afternoon event and during a meeting with officials — in an effort to reiterate that it is safe to drink, though unfiltered water still poses a danger to citizens. On stage with him as he spoke was Amariyanna Copeny, the 8-year-old girl who asked the President to meet with her and other residents when they traveled to Washington, D.C., earlier this year for congressional hearings. The President said her story and others he shared about people pitching in to help in Flint are proof that the citizens of that community have power.

But the President did not discount the people of Flint’s anger. For months, citizens of the former manufacturing hub were told by their leaders that the water they were consuming was safe, even as residents protested and complained of foul smelling and poor tasting water. It wasn’t until after researchers presented evidence of elevated lead in the water and in the children’s blood that officials began to act.

“It’s not too much for all Americans to expect that their water is going to be safe,” President Obama said. “You should be angry, but channel that anger.”

Lead poisoning is known to have an adverse impact on behavioral and intellectual development, but the President said the children of Flint will “make it.”

“Do not somehow communicate that our children here in this city that they’re going to be saddled with problems for the rest of their lives,” President Obama said. “They’ll make it as long as we’re there for them.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com