Obama visit to ground zero: Can he balance celebration with somberness?

At his first major public appearance since making the Osama bin Laden announcement, President Obama will lay a wreath at ground zero and meet with first responders and relatives of 9/11 victims.

Kathy Willens/AP
A personalized sign memorializing US serviceman, 1st Lt. Michael LiCalzi and reading 'Some things are not in vain,' hangs on a fence surrounding ground zero in New York Tuesday. President Obama will visit the site Thursday.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Presidents prefer a friendly spotlight.

In the days since relaying the news that US forces had killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, President Obama has kept a low profile, allowing others to own the microphone and explain the operation to an eager public. That comes to an abrupt end on Thursday, when Mr. Obama will take center stage in New York, at one scene of the 9/11 attacks – a subtle made-for-TV opportunity to take credit for the demise of the man most Americans considered to be Public Enemy No. 1. Two days later, "60 Minutes" will air a pretaped interview with the commander in chief about the bin Laden operation.

“It’s a victory lap,” says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “But that’s OK: He’s earned this one.”

Even so, Obama's first major public appearance since making the bin Laden announcement will need to be a carefully calibrated event with little whiff of political opportunism. He will lay a wreath at the 9/11 Memorial and meet privately with first responders and some relatives of 9/11 victims, for whom the losses are anything but political.

“It has to be a subdued celebration with real somberness,” says Douglas Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at Baruch College in New York. “It’s a complicated moment.”

Presidential victory laps are part of America’s political fabric. They provide footage for reelection campaigns, reminding voters of a president’s successful moments. They can revive a campaign or, in the case of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, cement a president’s place in history.

In this particular instance, Obama’s appearance at ground zero comes after his job approval rating had been below 50 percent – widely considered to be the political “danger zone.” But polls taken this week already show a spike in that number.

Presumably, Obama’s interview on “60 Minutes” will detail the president’s role in the operation, which could help boost his approval rating further. The interview is likely to provide him with a chance to show that he is not a dithering leader, as former Vice President Dick Cheney and others have described him. However, Mr. Sabato says he doubts it will provide much news, since “Obama is very careful with what he says.”

Polls released on Wednesday show widespread approval for the US actions. According to a Gallup poll, 93 percent of Americans approve of the military operation. However, Americans gave major credit for the actions to the military (89 percent), the Central Intelligence Agency (62), and then Obama (35).

In another survey, the CNN/Opinion Research poll, some 56 percent of the nation thought the White House should release photos of Mr. bin Laden after he had been shot. But the White House decided not to release the photos at this time.

The Republicans, including Mr. Cheney and House Speaker John Boehner, have graciously praised Obama for his role in the lengthy effort to bring bin Laden to justice.

Other presidents have embarked on victory laps before – with mixed results. After the allied mission in the first Gulf War that pushed Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait, President George H.W. Bush basked in the success. But the next year, in 1992, Mr. Bush was not reelected.

Then, in 2003 after the Iraq invasion, President George W. Bush declared an end to major combat operations in a speech on the USS Abraham Lincoln. The aircraft carrier displayed the banner “Mission Accomplished.” But as it turned out, the United States then had to fight a guerrilla war in Iraq, and some US troops are still deployed there.

As for the current situation, Obama had invited the younger Mr. Bush to the Thursday event at ground zero. But Bush declined. A spokesman for the former president, David Sherzer, told the Associated Press that Bush chose to remain out of the spotlight. However, Mr. Sherzer says, Bush considers bin Laden’s death an “important victory in the war on terror.”

The Obama’s visit to ground zero comes at a time when construction at the site is in full swing. The Memorial Plaza is expected to be open by the fall. Two of the new buildings are rising at a rate of a floor per week. Obama is likely to be greeted with cheers by some of the 10,000 construction workers employed at the site.

Both Obama and Bush are planning to be at ground zero this Sept. 11, which will mark the 10th anniversary of the attacks. For that moment, Mr. Muzzio is hoping that Obama gives a speech with an almost Gettysburg Address quality to it.

“Given Obama’s sense of history and his rhetorical skill and his ability to create narrative and metaphor, this could be one of those defining moments in speeches,” he says.

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