"And this kind of thinking -- this myth that government is always the enemy; that forgets that our government is us -- it’s us; that it’s an extension of us, ourselves -- that attitude is as corrosive to our democracy as the stuff that resulted in lead in your water." -- President ObamaWhile we anxiously await the decision of Republican leaders (whose anti-government, anti-regulatory, climate change-denying, anti-choice, anti-immigrant ... rhetoric created the primordial soup out of which rose their presumptive presidential nominee) on whether they will endorse or merely support Mr. Trump, President Obama happened to deliver a speech in Flint, Michigan.
It was a stemwinder that should have gotten a lot more attention. It destroyed long-cherished Republican talking points about the dangers of government overreach, and gave an unapologetic, irrefutable defense of government's critical role in the welfare of our society. And it provides an extremely useful template for the presumptive Democratic nominee and other Democrats running for office this fall.
Here are some of the key nuggets:
[I] do think there is a larger issue that we have to acknowledge, because I do think that part of what contributed to this crisis was a broader mindset, a bigger attitude,
And it’s a mindset that believes that less government is the highest good no matter what. It’s a mindset that says environmental rules designed to keep your water clean or your air clean are optional, or not that important, or unnecessarily burden businesses or taxpayers. It’s an ideology that undervalues the common good, says we’re all on our own and what’s in it for me, and how do I do well, but I’m not going to invest in what we need as a community. And, as a consequence, you end up seeing an underinvestment in the things that we all share that make us safe, that make us whole, that give us the ability to pursue our own individual dreams. So we underinvest in pipes underground. We underinvest in bridges that we drive on, and the roads that connect us, and the schools that move us forward.
And this is part of the attitude, this is part of the mindset: We especially underinvest when the communities that are put at risk are poor, or don't have a lot of political clout -- and so are not as often heard in the corridors of power.
And this kind of thinking -- this myth that government is always the enemy; that forgets that our government is us -- it’s us; that it’s an extension of us, ourselves -- that attitude is as corrosive to our democracy as the stuff that resulted in lead in your water. Because what happens is it leads to systematic neglect. It leads to carelessness and callousness. It leads to a lot of hidden disasters that you don't always read about and aren’t as flashy, but that over time diminish the life of a community and make it harder for our young people to succeed....
So it doesn't matter how hard you work, how responsible you are, or how well you raise your kids -- you can't set up a whole water system for a city. That's not something you do by yourself. You do it with other people. You can't hire your own fire department, or your own police force, or your own army. There are things we have to do together -- basic things that we all benefit from.
And that’s how we invested in a rail system and a highway system. That's how we invested in public schools. That's how we invested in science and research. These how we invested in community colleges and land grant colleges like Michigan State....
So the people in Flint, and across Michigan, and around the country -- individuals and church groups and non-for-profits and community organizations -- you've proven that the American people will step up when required. And our volunteers, our non-for-profits, they're the lifeblood of our communities. We so appreciate what you do.
But volunteers don’t build county water systems and keep lead from leaching into our drinking glasses. We can’t rely on faith groups to reinforce bridges and repave runways at the airport. We can’t ask second-graders, even ones as patriotic as Isiah Britt who raised all that money, to raise enough money to keep our kids healthy.
You hear a lot about government overreach, how Obama -- he’s for big government. Listen, it’s not government overreach to say that our government is responsible for making sure you can wash your hands in your own sink, or shower in your own home, or cook for your family. These are the most basic services. There is no more basic element sustaining human life than water. It’s not too much to expect for all Americans that their water is going to be safe....
But it’s not enough just to fix the water. We’ve got to fix the culture of neglect, the mindset I was talking about -- that has degraded too many schools and too many roads and hurt too many futures. We’ve got to fix the mindset that only leaves people cynical about our government. Our government is us -- of us, by us, for us -- the people....
So Flint is just a tip of the iceberg in terms of us reinvesting in our communities. We’ve seen bridges fall and levies break. So we’ve got to break that mindset. These things aren’t a coincidence. They’re the same mindset that left Flint’s water unsafe to drink. And it’s self-destructive when we don’t invest in our communities. Because a lot of times the people who are against government spending, they’ll say, well, the private sector is the key. The private sector is the key for our economy. Free markets and free enterprise are great. But companies won’t invest in a place where your infrastructure is crumbling and your roads are broke. You’re not going to start a business or be able to recruit outstanding staff if there’s no safe drinking water in the city.
So my hope is, is that this begins a national conversation about what we need to do to invest in future generations. And it’s no secret that, on this pipeline of neglect, a lot of times it’s the most poor folks who are left behind. It’s working people who are left behind. We see it in communities across the Midwest that haven’t recovered since the plants shut down. We see it on inner city corners where they might be able to drink the water, but they can’t find a job. We see it in the rural hills of Appalachia.
We’ve got to break that mindset that says that that neighborhood over there, that’s not my problem; those kids over there, they don’t look like my kids exactly, so I don’t have to worry about them -- out of sight, out of mind. We’ve got to break that attitude that says somehow there’s an “us” in “them,” and remind ourselves that there’s just one big “we” -- the American family, and everybody has got to look out for each other. Because the kids here in Flint aren’t “those” kids, they’re “our” kids....
That’s America. That’s who we are at our best. We are a nation of individuals, and we should be proud of everything that we can accomplish on our own through hard work, and grit, and looking after our own families, and making sure we’re raising our children right. But we don’t do these things alone. Ultimately, our success is dependent on each other. Our success is dependent on each other.