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After Bin Laden's Death, Obama Visits N.Y.

In an earlier wreathlaying, New York City firefighters mark the fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Thursday, President Obama will place a tribute at the site.
Henny Ray Abrams
In an earlier wreathlaying, New York City firefighters mark the fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Thursday, President Obama will place a tribute at the site.

President Obama is going to ground zero in New York on Thursday. Even though he's visiting in the emotional wake of the killing of Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, the president isn't expected to change his low-key demeanor.

During one of the most consequential weeks since he took office, the president has kept a decidedly low profile.

This is a different moment and a different president from the scene three days after the terrorist attacks in 2001, when President Bush stood amid the rubble of the World Trade Center with his arm over an emergency rescue worker's shoulder.

He took a bullhorn and began speaking off the cuff. When someone in the audience shouted, "We can't hear you!" Bush replied, "I can hear you."

"The rest of the world hears you," he continued, "and the people who knocked down these buildings will hear all of us soon."

Now the decade-long manhunt is over, and President Obama goes to ground zero to symbolically close this chapter.

Thursday's event will have a very different tone. Obama does not plan to make any public comments.

White House spokesman Jay Carney explained, "He wants to lay a wreath to honor the victims, to honor the first responders who so courageously rushed to the scene and in many cases gave their own lives to try to save others, to honor the spirit of unity in America that we all felt in the wake of that terrible attack. I think the power of that requires no words."

The president will meet in private with first responders and relatives of those who died on Sept. 11, 2001.

Jeff Shesol, who was a speechwriter for President Clinton, says he believes this week could mark a fundamental shift in the way Americans perceive Obama.

"I think it's very hard after this moment to suggest that President Obama doesn't have the guts to make tough calls, to make bold and risky calls, to make decisions that could lead to failure, that could lead to loss of life, and then go ahead because he knows it to be the right thing to do," he says.

Gutsy, tough and bold are not words people have often applied to Obama.
He is more often stereotyped as deliberative, professorial and aloof.

Even some Republicans say this week recasts him as a more decisive leader.

Trey Grayson, who directs the Harvard Institute of Politics, says it's "a big moment and it will certainly play a role in people's perception, which will therefore play a role in his re-election."

This may be especially true for young voters.

Today's college students grew up with the image of bin Laden as an almost mythological villain.

"For the kids who I see in college, the Harvard students that we work with at the Institute of Politics, it's a moment that tied all their generation together," Grayson says. "We had hundreds of kids run up to Harvard Yard. They put a flag around the John Harvard statue and started chanting. These are defining moments for them, and you saw the celebration."

But the parents of those kids are still concerned about high gasoline prices, a bad economy and the shortage of jobs. That makes Republican strategist Glen Bolger think the death of bin Laden may ultimately be a side note to the Obama presidency.

"If things get better for the country," he says, "this is going to be just one more thing people think about. If things don't get better for the country, then people are going to go back and say, yeah, he did that well, but what has he done about jobs, what has he done about the debt, what has he done about spending?"

The White House is aware of that risk, which may be one reason Obama will fly to Indianapolis on Friday for an event about the economy. After that, he'll address troops at Fort Campbell in Kentucky.

Democratic pollster Jeff Garin agrees that the death of bin Laden doesn't fix the economy or guarantee that Obama's poll numbers will stay high.

But he says Thursday's appearance at ground zero burnishes a moment in the public's mind.

"First impressions are powerful, and in some respects, even after two years, this is a first impression of President Obama in this kind of situation," he says.

The administration hopes it is an impression that will last.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.