WASHINGTON — Searching for unity long vanished since the day terrorists astonished America, President Barack Obama will hail national resilience and remember hurting families when he gives the main speech of his Sept. 11 commemorations.
Obama will honor victims at each of the sites where nearly 3,000 people were killed in the 2001 attacks – first at ground zero in lower Manhattan, then in Shanksville, Pa. and at the Pentagon. Yet his only address to the nation will come at night, lasting about 15 minutes during an event at the Kennedy Center in Washington.
The message to expect from the president: America's character is stronger than the blow inflicted by al-Qaida or any other threat to the country, Obama deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Friday in an interview with The Associated Press.
The president also will put an emphasis on how lives have changed for the families affected by 9/11 and for the troops who have served since that day. It has been a period in which more than 6,000 service members have died and 45,000 have been wounded in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
"This is something that had an extraordinary toll on individual Americans, and that's what can't be lost amid the broader debates this country has had," said Rhodes, who handles strategic communications for the National Security Council and has been involved in shaping Obama's Sunday remarks.
"You've had families who have had to rebuild their lives. You've had troops that have had to serve. That's very much where his focus is going to be."
Nearly 3,000 people were killed when al-Qaida terrorists hijacked four airplanes and steered them toward the symbols of American democracy and power.
Two planes first crashed into the towers of the World Trade Center, which soon collapsed in fire. One smashed into the Pentagon. And the last one, believed to be intended by hijackers for the White House or the Capitol, plummeted into a Pennsylvania field as passengers fought back to avoid calamity.
The White House insists Obama has no intention to change his plans amid a credible but unconfirmed threat of an al-Qaida attack in New York or Washington around the Sept. 11 anniversary.
After an early departure from Washington, Obama will take part in a formal ceremony Sunday morning in New York, joined by former President George W. Bush among other familiar leaders.
Obama is expected to make a short reading, perhaps a few minutes long.
He will then visit Shanksville and the Pentagon, where broader commemorations will have already taken place, to lay wreaths and meet with family members.
In the evening, Obama will give his remarks during the "Concert for Hope," a ceremony of music and readings intended to offer a sense of renewal.
Rhodes said the president, in looking back at the last decade, will seek to reverse the divisiveness of the national debate without dwelling on it.
He said Obama is likely to make the broader point that the United States has endured a terribly difficult time, from the blow of Sept. 11 to the ensuring wars, and come back to degrade the al-Qaida network, kill Osama bin Laden and begin to wind down two long wars.
Obama has been previewing his message, writing in a USA Today opinion column this week that the United States emerges from its major tests stronger than it was.
"That's the America we were on 9/11 and in the days that followed," Obama wrote. "That's the America we can and must always be."
Compared to the time of the attacks, one-third of people think the willingness of people to help each other out has gotten worse, according to a new poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. About 45 percent have seen no change. A smaller number, 22 percent say it has improved
The view about unity among leaders is far bleaker. A total of 71 percent of people say bipartisanship and cooperation in government has worsened.
Obama was a state senator in Illinois at the time of the attacks.
He has recalled going home that night and staying up late, diapering and burping his newborn daughter Sasha, who is now 10. Obama said he remembers wondering what kind of world she would be inheriting.
The president and first lady Michele Obama visited Arlington National Cemetery where they paid tribute to members of the military killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on Saturday.
One day before the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Obamas made a pilgrimage to Section 60 of the cemetery. The White House says that's the burial ground for military personnel killed in those two wars. Those conflicts have claimed 6,213 military personnel.
At one gravesite, the Obamas stopped to talk with members of a family who appeared to be visiting a grave. The Obamas chatted a few minutes, posed for pictures and gave out handshakes and hugs.
Then the Obamas, hand in hand, strolled along one of the rows between identical white tombstones, pausing at some markers.