WASHINGTON — Remembering those who died eight years ago in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, President Obama on Friday pledged to "do everything in our power to keep America safe."
Obama laid a wreath at the Pentagon Memorial, near the site where 184 people were killed when a hijacked jetliner slammed into the Defense Department headquarters. Nearly 3,000 others died that day in 2001 when hijackers flew two planes into New York's World Trade Center and crashed a fourth plane in a field in Pennsylvania.
"Let us renew our resolve against those who perpetrated this barbaric act and who plot against us still," Obama said Friday. "In defense of our nation we will never waver. In pursuit of Al Qaeda and its extremist allies, we will never falter."
This week, Obama circulated a memorandum to Congress that said: "The terrorist threat that led to the declaration on Sept. 14, 2001, of a national emergency continues."
Despite his stated resolve, however, a Gallup poll released Friday found that Republicans had an edge over Democrats -- 49% to 42% -- when Americans were asked which party would better protect the U.S. from terrorism and military threats.
The avowed architect of the Sept. 11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, is being held at the military's detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But the leader of Al Qaeda and his deputy -- Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri -- remain at large. Obama has pledged a stepped-up assault against extremists as he builds up U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan and draws down American forces in Iraq.
On a rainy Friday morning, the president and First Lady Michelle Obama commemorated the Sept. 11 attacks by observing a moment of silence on the South Lawn of the White House -- as three bells rang and a bugler sounded taps -- before heading to the Pentagon.
There, the president invoked "the true spirit of that day. Not the human capacity for evil, but the human capacity for good. Not the desire to destroy, but the impulse to save and to serve and to build."
"On a day when others sought to sap our confidence, let us renew our common purpose," Obama said.
"This may be the greatest lesson of this day, the strongest rebuke to those who attacked us, the highest tribute to those taken from us -- that such sense of purpose need not be a fleeting moment," he said.
"It can be a lasting virtue."
Members of the administration fanned out across the country Friday to take part in the first National Day of Service and Remembrance, part of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which Obama signed into law in April.
In New York, Vice President Joe Biden attended Sept. 11 events, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was the keynote speaker at a service event at the Beacon Theatre. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan and Trade Representative Ron Kirk painted houses for the homeless.
In Washington, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack prepared meals for the homeless, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan helped spruce up an elementary school. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius assisted in a mass swine-flu vaccination at a high school in Alexandria, Va.