President Barack Obama, seeking to bring some closure to the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil after the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, laid a wreath at New York’s “Ground Zero” and honored those whose lives were sacrificed.
Obama’s stop at the Sept. 11 memorial was his first visit to the former World Trade Center site as president. He talked with emergency workers and met privately with some of the family members of those who died in the attack. Tomorrow, he’ll meet with some of the special operations forces involved in the Pakistan raid that killed bin Laden, two administration officials said.
“What happened on Sunday, because of the courage of our military and the outstanding work of our intelligence, sent a message around the world, but also sent a message here back home: that when we say we will never forget, we mean what we say,” Obama told firefighters at the headquarters of Engine Company 54, Ladder Company 4 and Battalion 9, which lost 15 of the 343 firefighters who died on Sept. 11, the single largest loss of life at any firehouse.
The trip comes four days after Obama announced that bin Laden was killed by U.S. commandos at the Pakistani compound where he was hiding. Ending a debate within his administration, Obama said yesterday that he won’t release any images of bin Laden’s body or his burial service at sea.
Bin Laden’s Remains
The president said in an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” program that the U.S. accorded bin Laden more consideration than the terrorist leader did his victims.
“We took more care on this than, obviously, bin Laden took when he killed 3,000 people,” Obama said in the interview to be broadcast May 8. “He didn’t have much regard for how they were treated and desecrated. But that, again, is something that makes us different.”
He also told CBS that bin Laden’s death means that the U.S. doesn’t need to “have a perpetual footprint of the size we have now” in Afghanistan. As of March 2011, the U.S. had about 100,000 troops there, according to the Pentagon; under Obama’s plan, the U.S. is to begin troop withdrawals in July.
Obama was greeted upon arrival in New York by Rudy Giuliani, who was mayor at the time of the attacks. The two had lunch at the firehouse, along with fire department officials, before heading to Ground Zero. He also stopped at the First Precinct police station in lower Manhattan.
Meeting With Families
The president met with about 60 Sept. 11 families who were invited by the White House in consultation with staff of the National 9/11 Memorial. The group was intended to be a cross-section of those who have been advocates on behalf the families, according to the administration.
Around the corner from the visitors’ center, a group of victims’ relatives who weren’t invited complained that they were being kept behind police barricades.
“I called and called and no one would get back to me with an invitation,” said Allison Agnes Adams, 53, whose husband Patrick, 60, chief security officer for Fuji Bank, was killed in the attack. “I’m terribly disappointed.”
Ann Rossinow, who lost her son Norman, 39, an Aon Corp. risk manager, got to Ground Zero at 9:30 a.m. only to be directed behind police barricades for more than two hours waiting for a glimpse of the president.
“I wanted to share this with the other families who lost loved ones,” she said. “I wanted to congratulate and thank the president, and they treated us like this. It hurts.”
Obama invited former President George W. Bush, a Republican who was in office when the attacks occurred, to join him in New York. Bush declined the offer.
Out of Spotlight
“He appreciated the invite but has chosen in his post-presidency to remain largely out of the spotlight,” David Sherzer, a spokesman for the former president, said in an e-mailed statement. “He continues to celebrate with all Americans this important victory in the war on terror.”
Bush plans to mark the 10-year anniversary of the attack at the World Trade Center site in September, Sherzer said. Carney said Obama also will be there.
At the police station, Obama praised the leadership shown on Sept. 11, 2001, by Giuliani, a Republican who has said he may run again for president in 2012. Giuliani said earlier this week that he admired “the courage of the president” in ordering the assault against bin Laden.
Obama said the nation was united in its response to the threat of terrorism.
“Americans, even in the midst of tragedy, will come together, across the years, across politics, across party, across administrations, to make sure that justice is done,” Obama told the officers.
Obama’s private meeting tomorrow with members of the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, which piloted the commandos to the house where bin Laden was hiding, will come during a previously announced trip to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, according to a military official who spoke on condition of anonymity. The base is home to the regiment and several units that recently returned from Afghanistan, which the U.S. invaded in October 2001 because the Taliban government was harboring al-Qaeda. Obama also will speak at a rally there.
A ceremony was held today at the Pentagon, where 184 people died Sept. 11 when one of the four commercial airliners hijacked by al-Qaeda slammed into the building. Vice President Joe Biden laid a wreath at the memorial there and met with relatives of those killed, along with first responders. Also at the ceremony in the Washington suburb of Arlington, Virginia, were Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Like Bush’s in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Obama’s standing with the public got a boost following bin Laden’s death, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted May 2 and 3. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they approved of the president’s overall job performance, up from 46 percent last month.
Still, the pain of Sept. 11 remains acute, and any appearance of mixing events such as today’s with politics is risky. Bush was criticized in 2004 when he released campaign ads using images of emergency workers in the rubble of the World Trade Center towers.
“The line between honor and exploitation is a fine one, but I think it is entirely appropriate that President Obama visit Ground Zero,” said Mark McKinnon, vice chairman of Public Strategies Inc., a political consulting firm, and a former media adviser to Bush. “As long as there is no dancing in the end zone, the families of the 9/11 victims deserve the closure.”
The state of the economy will be the primary driver for voters in the next election, not bin Laden, according to Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and onetime political aide to former president Bill Clinton who now is advising an independent campaign group that will raise money for the 2012 contest.
The president’s higher overall ratings in the New York Times/CBS News poll didn’t extend to voters’ view of his handling of the economy, where his approval rating fell to the lowest level since he took office. Thirty-four percent of those polled said they approve of Obama’s handling of the economy, down 4 percentage points from a poll conducted two weeks ago.
The nationwide telephone survey of 532 U.S. adults has a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.
A Labor Department report tomorrow may show that the jobless rate held at 8.8 percent in April, according to the median forecast of economists surveyed by Bloomberg News. Unemployment is forecast to average 8.5 percent in 2012.
Begala said Republicans will have a harder time criticizing Obama’s leadership or his ability as commander-in-chief because of the successful operation against bin Laden.
“They’ve lost at least one of the two lines of attack that they need to dislodge an incumbent president,” Begala said.