Obama's ground zero balancing act
By: Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush
May 5, 2011
President Barack Obama on Thursday will mark the killing of Osama bin Laden with a triumphant return to ground zero, a hallowed site that has often been a place of discord, controversy and — for the president — mixed emotions.
The visit is expected to be celebratory but solemn, with Obama laying a wreath at a memorial where the World Trade Center once stood to commemorate the more than 2,800 people killed there on Sept. 11, 2001, in the terrorist attacks plotted by bin Laden. He also plans to meet with a select group of first responders, family members and survivors of the attacks during his first visit to the site since the 2008 presidential campaign.
Yet for all the sense of a hero’s welcome — nearly 70 percent of New Yorkers approve of Obama, according to a poll released Wednesday — the visit will not be quite so simple for Obama.
This is, after all, the president who was forced to scrap plans to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed nearby because of opposition from the city’s political establishment, who tangled with opponents of the so-called ground zero mosque, unsuccessfully sought to shutter Guantanamo Bay — and who often faced off with the Republicans whose reputations are most linked to the attacks, former President George W. Bush and ex-Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
“I think the site and the series of events are filled with emotion,” said Lewis Eisenberg, former chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and a member of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. board. “I don’t know how to respond to the president’s visit, but to the extent that it gives comfort and closure to the families I am most grateful.”
Bush and Giuliani have both praised Obama’s daring in authorizing the mission that ended the long search for bin Laden, and Obama invited both to Thursday’s event. Bush declined, citing his desire to avoid the post-presidential spotlight; Giuliani will be there, along with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state’s two Democratic senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.
“I think it’s because of the emotions, a lot of people react very differently to Sept. 11,” Giuliani told POLITICO. “They see it in different ways. They want different things done … [But] I think it’s very important that the president does this. … To the family members, it is a really very good thing. It’s absolutely the right thing to do.”
White House officials have praised Bush’s commitment to fight terrorism, but they’ve repeatedly made it clear that Obama’s breaks with his predecessor — his refusal to describe the fight as a “war on terror” and his opposition to waterboarding — contributed to the successful hunt for bin Laden.
Yet even on the eve of the trip, White House press secretary Jay Carney refused to rule out that some of the information used to track down bin Laden came from suspects subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques” deplored by Democrats but endorsed, with caveats, by Giuliani and Bush.
In New York, emotions remain raw nearly a decade after the attacks, with some family members ambivalent about Obama’s trip — and others questioning why the event wasn’t opened to all who wanted to attend.
“I hope it’s not something where the president’s coming here to get points,” said retired city firefighter Lee Ielpi, whose 29-year-old son, Jonathan, died in the collapse of the south tower.
“I really don’t think so. … But I hope what he’s going to say to us is going to be something we can carry into the street and pass it along in a positive way,” said Ielpi, one of those picked to meet with Obama by the White House with guidance from the foundation that is overseeing development of a World Trade Center memorial.
A city that prides itself on resiliency and a short memory has never quite shaken the grievous blow to its self-confidence suffered on that sunny, cerulean Tuesday.
A NY 1/Marist Poll taken after Sunday’s raid on bin Laden’s compound found Obama’s popularity in the city jumped by 10 points, to 69 percent, in recent weeks. But the poll also found New Yorkers to be conflicted about the impact of bin Laden’s death, with only about a quarter saying they felt safer — and a similar number saying they actually think the raid has made them less safe.
“Osama bin Laden’s killing is huge, but around the fringes I think you are still going to see criticism on the right about his indecisiveness and, on the liberal side, you are going to hear complaints about Gitmo,” says Marist Poll director Lee Miringoff.
“The bottom line is that Obama got the guy, and that’s why so many Republicans are backing off right now — at least until the next unemployment report.”
While the political appeal of Bush and Obama have faded here, the service they rendered the city during its darkest days have not been forgotten — even if Obama is the one basking in the afterglow of bin Laden’s death.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.), a friend of Giuliani’s whose Long Island district was home to dozens of firefighter and police officers killed in the attacks, said it was hard not to draw parallels between Obama’s visit and Bush’s famous bullhorn speech to ground zero workers days after the towers fell.
“To me, it’s the president of the United States, and at a moment like this, the president is above politics,” said King. “The big question is: ‘Is it the right thing to do?’ To me, it’s the right thing to do. It closes a very sad chapter in this book. This is where it began, and now we’re back.”
For being the product of an event that brought the nation together, the scarred World Trade Center site has, from virtually the very beginning, been a flash point of controversy.
The debates over the years have involved everything from access to the bedrock at the 16-acre site to how unidentified remains would be stored, to how much office space would be rebuilt and how names would be listed at the memorial. The massive area was one of the biggest construction sites in the world, with more stakeholders than there were immediate answers on how to rebuild.
Even the agency created to oversee development was controversial — incoming Mayor Bloomberg thought it added a layer of needless bureaucracy, but it allowed Gov. George Pataki, who was then seeking a third term, tremendous sway over the rebuilding. Pataki also dramatically affected the debate by declaring in 2002, “We will never build where the towers stood,” a statement that lent itself to interpretation and added to the controversy.
The debate over the site itself eventually morphed into a debate over how to treat the thousands of first responders and volunteers sickened by the toxic debris caused by the towers’ collapse. And last year, on the ninth anniversary of the attacks, the site itself became the focus of major protests, for the first time since Sept. 11, with protests and counter-protests touched off by a plan to build a mosque and community center nearby.
The White House got help from the 9/11 Memorial Foundation in picking relatives of victims to meet with the president, which meant that Bloomberg’s City Hall team was heavily involved. Elected officials didn’t receive invitations — they were told they could come if they wanted, a source familiar with the situation said. Former President Bill Clinton was invited but declined, citing scheduling conflicts.
The gathering of victims’ family members will include some of the most vocal critics of the response of federal, state and city officials in the attack’s aftermath — and Obama is likely to get an earful on a range of issues, including the reconstruction of the site, the treatment of ailing first responders and the administration’s anti-terror policies.
Many family members expressed frustration over how the invitations have been handled, with some saying organizers should have been better prepared for the outpouring of requests to meet Obama.
“As we speak, I do not know where I am going and don’t know at what time,” Debra Burlingame, who’s been among the most outspoken of the victims’ relatives, said Wednesday.
Families are “viewing this as an opportunity to thank the president of the United States … I believe this is nothing but a choreographed photo op from the president … it’s really ugly.”
Edie Lutnick, who lost her brother Gary on Sept. 11, added: “I’m disappointed that I have so many family members who really would like to meet the president and say thank you … and they are not getting the opportunity to do that … There’s also no reason why he couldn’t have done a larger meeting with a larger group of people.”
But Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), who represents the World Trade Center site, chalked up the criticism up to the intensity of emotions and predicted that Obama’s presence would serve as a salve and comfort.
“There are very few times in the history of a country when there is tremendous unadulterated unabashed good news,” he said. “All New Yorkers remember where we were, what we were doing on 9/11, and we remember the devastation. … It’s a step toward closing the circle.”