President Barack Obama visited Detroit on Wednesday to highlight a resurgence in the auto industry, but various crises confronting Michigan — including poisoned water in Flint and school funding woes in Detroit — also occupied some of his itinerary.
Speaking at a joint General Motors-United Auto Workers facility, Obama opened his speech decrying the water contamination calamity, which has spurred accusations of government negligence and cover-ups.
“If I was a parent in Flint, I’d be beside myself over my kids’ health,” Obama told a crowd of auto workers and their families, adding that the government can’t “shortchange basic services that we provide to our people.”
Obama didn’t visit Flint on Wednesday, but the White House did dispatch an administration official, Nicole Lurie, to the city to coordinate federal efforts there. Lurie is the deputy secretary for preparedness at the Department of Health and Human Services.
But even outside of Flint, Obama was unable to avoid witnessing another of Michigan’s crises in close range: the widespread closure of Detroit schools after teachers staged a “sickout” to protest the lack of funding and substandard conditions.
A large number of protesters demanding higher school funding levels met Obama at the site of his speech, and Obama ate lunch with the city’s mayor Mike Duggan Wednesday, where they were expected to discuss the funding issues.
Eighty-three Detroit public schools — or roughly 80% of those in the system — were closed Wednesday because of “high teacher absences,” the latest instance of teachers and staff calling in sick to call attention to what they see as inadequate funding.
Auto Industry Rescue
Neither the Flint disaster nor the school closures prompted Obama to detour from his main message: the thriving American auto industry, which has added 646,000 jobs and posted a record level of auto sales in the U.S. since 2009.
At the start of Obama’s presidency, GM and Chrysler were teetering on collapse when the administration effectively forced both automakers into bankruptcy, lending them enough to survive. Since the bailout, both have repaid their outstanding loans to the U.S. Treasury.
In his remarks, Obama touted his administration’s rescue of the auto companies, saying the sector’s resurgence has allowed Detroit to start coming back as a city.
And he claimed GOP contenders for his job would have allowed companies like GM and Ford to go under.
“It’s strange to watch people try to outdo each other talking about how bad things are,” Obama said. “But remember, these are the same folks that would’ve let this industry go under.”
“These are some of the same folks who back in Washington called our plan to save the auto industry ‘the road to socialism;’ said it was going to be a ‘disaster;’ said ‘they’ll run it into the ground,'” he continued. “When I hear, today, some of these folks running for President, who can’t bring themselves to admit what you guys have accomplished, I don’t want you to take that seriously. Because when you ignore the progress we’ve made, then you’re not going to make good choices about where we need to go in the future.”
Earlier Wednesday Obama visited the North American International Auto Show where he was seen sitting in the driver seat of an orange Chevrolet Bolt EV.
Flint water crisis
While Obama didn’t visit Flint while in Detroit, he met with Mayor Karen Weaver at the White House Tuesday to discuss the water crisis.
In a description of the meeting, the White House said Obama “heard firsthand how the residents of Flint are dealing with the ongoing public health crisis, and the challenges that still exist for the city, its residents, and the business community.”
Flint, the birthplace of General Motors that once employed 80,000 autoworkers, but which now faces widespread poverty after auto jobs largely left the city, has been reeling from the discovery that its water contains dangerously high levels of lead.
The revelation has led to political fallout. Focus has honed in on Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who opponents claim took too long to respond when tests indicated high levels of lead in Flint’s drinking water. But Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency has also come under scrutiny for not taking action quickly enough.
The issues have hit the presidential campaign to replace Obama, with the Democratic primary front-runner Hillary Clinton slamming Snyder and receiving Weaver’s endorsement. Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders has called for the governor’s resignation.