Administration officials acknowledged that the initial aid would hardly solve problems in Detroit that have been decades in the making. But, Mr. Sperling said, "It's the largest city bankruptcy in the history of our country, on our watch, and we've got to do something."
Yet the idea of the federal government's responsibility toward Detroit is hardly a settled issue in Washington. Instead, divisions over the question reflect the fundamental divide between the two parties over the size and role of government.
Congress, preoccupied with reducing federal deficits, has been all but silent about helping the birthplace of the auto industry and, some say, of the American middle class. The Republican-controlled House is hostile to any spending initiatives from Mr. Obama. In the Senate, two Southern Republicans separately and unsuccessfully proposed legislation intended to ban bailouts — Detroit leaders have not sought one — briefly churning the racial currents at play over a city where four out of five residents are black.
(Read more: Stocks down on government shutdown worries)
So with the chances that Congress would pass any legislation for Detroit "somewhere between zero and zero," as an administration official put it, Mr. Obama has fallen back on what he can do through executive actions, with available money and tax credits, or through partnerships with local businesses and foundations.
The effort is similar to the way he has worked around Congress to create advanced manufacturing centers nationwide with federal and local support, provide broadband in every classroom, speed up infrastructure projects and try to reduce gun violence.
Even before Friday's event, administration officials worked with Michigan's governor, Rick Snyder, a Republican, to redirect $52 million in federal money to be used to demolish abandoned properties that are blighting communities and discouraging investment.
(Read more: Detroit spend billions extra on pensions)
Most of the roughly $300 million to come is federal money, with the state and foundations chipping in, according to the White House. About $140 million would go toward transit improvements, including $24 million to repair buses. An additional $100 million would go to blight efforts, including $25 million for commercial demolitions from combined federal, state and foundation money. With the planned $25 million in federal Homeland Security money, up to 150 firefighters could be hired.
"Our message right from the beginning was: There is nothing we can do to help on the bankruptcy; there is no bailout," said Mr. Sperling, a native of Ann Arbor, Mich. "However, we want to look at what could we do to help Detroit through existing resources and mobilization" of public and private partners.
"What we knew, too, was that this was a place where signaling was important," he added. "You want to signal that people are staying with Detroit, that this is still a place to invest, to go."
The signals are intended for outside investors and residents alike. "There is this quiet desperation of just everyday normal people, of why does nobody care, why isn't anybody helping us," said Debbie Dingell, a local leader and the wife of Representative John D. Dingell, a Democrat whose district is west and south of Detroit.
(Read more: U.S. Treasury kicks off third stage of GM exit)
"I've said a thousand times, we're a precursor to the same problems everyone else is facing," Ms. Dingell added, citing in particular the public pension obligations that weigh on many local and state governments.