Obama appoints 'czar' for Flint water response, mayor visits White House

The Obama administration is naming a "czar" to serve as point person for the toxic water crisis in Flint., Mich., elevating the issue after the city's mayor visited the White House Tuesday afternoon.

The Department of Health and Human Services plans to designate Dr. Nicole Lurie, an agency assistant secretary, to lead the federal government’s coordinated response -- as officials at the state and local levels scramble to deal with the dangerous lead levels in city water.

The Lurie announcement by White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest was made shortly after Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, a Democrat, met with Valerie Jarrett, a top aide to President Obama.

Weaver, in Washington for an annual U.S. mayors’ conference, said earlier in the day that Obama "needs to hear first-hand what's going on in Flint."

The water crisis has in recent days become somewhat of a political football, as the Democratic presidential candidates on Sunday slammed Michigan Republican Gov. Rick Snyder for the state's response -- and Snyder accused Democrats of "finger pointing."

The federal government has taken on a bigger role in the meantime, with Obama signing an emergency declaration Saturday that could get Flint up to $5 million in federal funds.

“The city and the citizens of Flint are going through a difficult time,” Earnest said Tuesday in announcing Dr. Lurie’s lead role. “We’re doing what we can.”

In 2014, a state-appointed emergency manager approved a switch for Flint from Detroit's water system to Flint River water to save money. But tests later showed high levels of lead in the blood of some local children.

Flint has returned to Detroit water, but many residents are relying on bottled water.

Earnest said that Obama will likely meet with Weaver before Wednesday, but the president is not expected to go to Flint.

Snyder is taking the brunt of criticism from Democrats, who have not directed the same level of criticism at federal agencies or a former Democratic mayor.

During Sunday night's Democratic presidential primary debate, Hillary Clinton claimed Snyder didn’t appear to care about the lead that has contaminated Flint’s drinking water.

"We've had a city in the United States of America, where the population, which is poor in many ways, and majority African-American, has been drinking and bathing in lead-contaminated water," Clinton said. "And the governor of that state acted as though he didn't really care. He had requests for help that he basically stonewalled."

Weaver on Tuesday also participated in a conference call with the Clinton campaign, and reportedly endorsed her.

Sen. Bernie Sanders called on Snyder to simply resign.

Snyder, who has faced similar accusations from liberal activists, responded by saying in a tweet that “political statements and finger pointing” are not helping.

There is little question that the state bears significant responsibility for the public health crisis. Snyder apologized in December and Michigan's top environmental regulator, Dan Wyant, resigned after a task force created by Snyder blamed problems on his agency.

The group said the Department of Environmental Quality erred by not requiring Flint to keep the water out of residents' homes and belittling concerns from the public.

After the switch from the Detroit water, residents complained about the water's taste, smell and appearance. And children were found to have elevated levels of lead due to the water supply; lead exposure can cause behavior problems and learning disabilities in children.

The city returned to Detroit water in October.

However, the attacks on Snyder omit any mention of former Democratic Flint Mayor Dayne Walling or the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA’s top Midwest official told The Detroit News the agency knew about the lack of corrosion control in the water supply as early as April, after an EPA official identified problems with the drinking water, but did not make the information public.

The paper also cited email exchanges between EPA officials and Walling showing what it described as a “lack of urgency” over the matter and a greater focus on procedure rather than public safety. Walling and other officials repeatedly told residents the water was safe but blamed state and federal agencies for the problems.

Walling was voted out in November, with the water issue cited as a reason for his loss. Neither Walling nor the EPA’s alleged role in the crisis appeared in any criticisms from either Clinton or Sanders.

Fox News' Chad Pergram and The Associated Press contributed to this report.