WASHINGTON — On his first 9/11 anniversary as president, Barack Obama urged Americans to come together in service just as they united after the terrorist attacks eight years ago.
“We can summon once more that ordinary goodness of America, to serve our communities, to strengthen our country and to better our world,” Obama said at a memorial at the Pentagon.
Obama on Thursday declared the anniversary of the attacks a national day of remembrance and service. And he and first lady Michelle Obama led the way Friday, visiting a Habitat for Humanity construction site in Washington, where they pitched in by painting a living room wall.
Earlier, the Obamas participated in the anniversary rituals that have become familiar in the eight years since the attacks on New York and Washington. They began the day by observing a moment of silence on the South Lawn of the White House at precisely 8:46 a.m., the moment the first jetliner struck the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Nearly 200 White House staffers — from chief of staff Rahm Emanuel to kitchen workers — gathered under a heavy downpour. Moments before the president and first lady stepped outside, the rain subsided and it held off as they placed their hands over their hearts and bowed their heads.
After the Obamas walked back into the White House, the rain resumed.
As a presidential candidate, Obama marked last year’s anniversary in New York at the site of the World Trade Center. This year, the commander in chief spoke at a Pentagon memorial service, and laid a wreath in honor of the 184 people who died there.
About 500 family members of the victims and survivors of the attacks gathered at the site. Obama told them he would never waver in his defense of the country.
“Let us renew our resolve against those who perpetrated this barbaric act and who plot against us still,” he said. “In pursuit of al-Qaida and its extremist allies, we will never falter.”
Those words echoed Obama’s predecessor, former President George W. Bush, who said in a speech to Congress immediately following the attacks, “We will not tire, we will not falter and we will not fail.”
Though Obama has sought to distance himself from many of the Bush anti-terror policies that followed the Sept. 11 attacks, he has inherited his legacy in the form of two wars. Long a critic of the war in Iraq, Obama is drawing down troop levels there, while increasing the American presence in Afghanistan, where al-Qaida and the Taliban have regained strength.
At the Pentagon, Obama said the strongest rebuke against the terrorist attackers is the nation’s renewal of a common purpose.
“Let us remember how we came together as one nation, as one people, as Americans, united not only in our grief, but in our resolve to stand with one another, to stand up for the country we all love,” Obama said.
Bush issued a statement Friday expressing his condolences to the victims and their families, and urging Americans to “renew our determination to prevent evil from returning to our shores.”
In New York, Vice President Joe Biden laid flowers at the site of the World Trade Center.
In a letter sent Thursday to intelligence officials, CIA Director Leon Panetta recommitted the spy agency to the fight against al Qaida and its sympathizers. “There is no higher priority and no greater focus,” he wrote. “No life lost in this attack or battle shall be lost in vain.”