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The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

20 years later, Biden’s 9/11 commemoration will be different

The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

Welcome to The Daily 202 newsletter! Tell your friends to sign up here. On this day in 1977, President Jimmy Carter and Panamanian dictator Omar Torrijos signed a treaty to transfer control of the Panama Canal to Panama after Dec. 31, 1999.

Late this week, President Biden will become the fourth commander in chief to commemorate the 9/11 attacks. But he’ll be the first to do so after ending America’s presence on the ground in Afghanistan, a war triggered by the 20-year-old terrorist onslaught. 

The annual event comes at a politically tricky time for Biden. Coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths have surged, notably in states with Republican governors opposed to (or skeptical of) mitigation measures. The economy created a disappointing number of jobs in August. And his ambitious effort to remake the American economy and battle climate change faces an uphill slog to passageBiden’s approval ratings have dipped as a result

The President and first lady Jill Biden will travel Saturday to the three sites most closely associated with the national trauma – Lower Manhattan, Shanksville, Pa. and the Pentagon, my colleague Amy B Wang reported this weekend

The commemoration is an opportunity for the president to once again defend his handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal. The operation left behind 100 Americans in a country once again run by the Taliban, two decades after American-led forces shoved the Islamist militia from power.

And the Pentagon has warned terrorists with global ambitions could rise again after the U.S. departure. 

Both make it harder to declare the Afghanistan chapter of U.S. history closed.

The withdrawal also saw the deaths of 13 U.S. service members, most under 23 years old and the oldest, at 31, likely the only one with clear memories of the attacks that led America to invade in late 2001, hunting for 9/11 author Osama bin Laden.

Biden has worked to reorient the hunt for extremists inward, toward right-wing violence, while shifting resources overseas to contain a rising China — while countering terrorists in places other than (or in addition to) Afghanistan. 

The Washington Post is marking the anniversary with a series of news stories and features, looking back at how the strikes changed and challenged America and peering forward to try to assess America’s future role on the international stage. 

One of the most searing assessments came late last week from my colleague Carlos Lozada, who delved into much of the writing about 9/11 — official reports, memoirs, investigations, and the like. 

“Rather than exemplify the nation’s highest values, the official response to 9/11 unleashed some of its worst qualities: deception, brutality, arrogance, ignorance, delusion, overreach and carelessness. …

Reading or rereading a collection of such books today is like watching an old movie that feels more anguishing and frustrating than you remember. The anguish comes from knowing how the tale will unfold; the frustration from realizing that this was hardly the only possible outcome.” 

As someone who was covering President George W. Bush’s September 11, 2001 trip to Florida all those years ago, that morning seems both impossibly distant and still very fresh.

Bush was at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota for what was expected to be a news-deficient event on education. I was a few miles away in a crowded press filing center at a luxury Sunshine State hotel, expecting a boring day on what reporters call “a nothing trip,” staffed only because news outlets want to be close to the president in case of a sudden emergency. 

Then a news alert from my own outlet, Agence France-Presse, came across my screen. A plane had hit the World Trade Center. Other outlets were reporting the same thing. Early speculation about a small aircraft gave way to grim reality when live TV footage showed a flaming, smoking, jagged scar in one of the towers. I phoned and emailed every White House official I knew. We watched Bush’s education event on one screen. We watched the second plane hit the second tower on live television, then saw White House chief of staff Andy Card approach Bush and whisper something in Bush’s ear. America was under attack. 

The rest of the day is a blur. We learned the fates of the other hijacked airliners. We saw the towers collapse. I wrote from Florida about Bush’s hop-scotch return to the White House after stops at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, headquarters of the Strategic Air Command. Because every plane was grounded, we ultimately returned to Washington aboard chartered buses. 

One year after the attacks, Bush delivered two messages on Sept. 12, 2002. 

At the Pentagon, he focused on the national security response — the invasion of Afghanistan and efforts to create the Department of Homeland Security — in answer to the killings of nearly 3,000 people. 

“Their loss has moved a nation to action, in a cause to defend other innocent lives across the world. This war is waged on many fronts,” Bush said at the Pentagon that morning. “There's a great deal left to do. And the greatest tasks and the greatest dangers will fall to the armed forces of the United States.” 

A total of four U.S. presidents have presided over the war in Afghanistan. Here’s how messaging about the conflict evolved over two decades. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)
But that night, in a prime-time national address from Ellis Island, Bush predicted “September 11, 2001 will always be a fixed point in the life of America.” 

“For those who lost loved ones, it's been a year of sorrow, of empty places, of newborn children who will never know their fathers here on earth. For members of our military, it's been a year of sacrifice and service far from home,” he said. 

At his first 9/11 commemoration, President Barack Obama declared “no turning of the seasons can diminish the pain and the loss of that day.  No passage of time and no dark skies can ever dull the meaning of this moment.” 

Most of all, on a day when others sought to sap our confidence, let us renew our common purpose,” Obama said at the Pentagon. “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.” 

President Donald Trump shared little with his predecessors, but he expressed similar sentiments at his first 9/11 commemoration.  

“On that day not only did the world change, but we all changed,” Trump said at the Pentagon. “Our eyes were opened to the depths of the evil we faced, but in that hour of darkness we also came together with renewed purpose. Our differences never looked so small, our common bonds never felt so strong.”

That feeling didn't last, but America's frequently chaotic response to 9/11 did — including, until last month, the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

What’s happening now

The Taliban formed an acting government in Afghanistan as protests grow. “The temporary leaders include Muhammad Hassan Akhund, who was named prime minister, and Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was appointed deputy to the prime minister. The group said it would name permanent leadership soon,” Susannah George, Haq Nawaz Khan, Rachel Pannett, Ezzatullah Mehrdad and Adam Taylor report. “The announcement came after Taliban fighters fired guns into the air to disperse one of the largest demonstrations against their three-week-old rule of Afghanistan.

The protest unfolded a day after the Taliban declared victory over the last holdout resistance force and consolidated its control over the country, even as small demonstrations, particularly by women, erupted in cities. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said Tuesday after the protest was dispersed that demonstrations would not be allowed during this time.”

Biden will present a “six-pronged strategy” aimed at stopping the delta variant on Thursday. “The President will speak to the American people about his robust plan to stop the spread of the Delta variant and boost vaccinations. As the President has said since day 1, his administration will pull every lever to get the pandemic under control,” a White House official said. “On Thursday, the President will lay out a six pronged strategy that will help us do just that."

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Lunchtime reads from The Post

  • Justice Department to protect women seeking an abortion in Texas,” by Hamza Shaban: “The Justice Department is exploring ‘all options’ to challenge Texas’s restrictive abortion law, Attorney General Merrick Garland said Monday, as he vowed to provide support to abortion clinics that are ‘under attack’ in the state and to protect those seeking and providing reproductive health services. The move by the nation’s top law enforcement official comes just days after the Supreme Court refused to block a Texas abortion statute that bans the procedure as early as six weeks into pregnancy with no exceptions for rape or incest.”
  • A website for ‘whistleblowers’ to expose Texas abortion providers was taken down — again,” by Meryl Kornfield: “After a Texas law restricting abortion went into effect Wednesday, an antiabortion organization had hoped to out those involved in unlawful procedures by collecting anonymous tips online. But Texas Right to Life’s website,, which invited people to inform on those obtaining or facilitating abortions, has not stayed up for long, as website registration providers have said the online form to submit ‘whistleblower’ reports violates their rules. On Monday, the organization confirmed that the website redirects to its main page as it seeks to find a new digital home for the form."

… and beyond

  • Veterans struggle with issues that are often invisible to others,” by the New York Times’s Jennifer Steinhauer: “Thousands of veterans who served in the wars that began after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks struggle with issues that are often invisible to those around them. Some are suffering from health problems and trauma, and others from feelings of displacement and alienation, which for many grew more intense as the United States completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan last month and the Taliban regained control of the country.”
  • Johnson hands workers, firms $17 billion annual health bill,” by Bloomberg’s Emily Ashton, Alex Morales and Kitty Donaldson: “U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a tax hike on workers, businesses and shareholders to help rescue the National Health Service from soaring backlogs that built up during the Covid-19 pandemic and reform the ‘broken’ social care system. National insurance, a payroll tax, will rise by 1.25% from next year breaking the Conservative Party’s key manifesto pledge not to increase any of the main rates of tax.”
  • In global first, El Salvador adopts Bitcoin as currency,” by the Times’s Oscar Lopez and Ephrat Livni: “El Salvador on Tuesday became the first country to adopt Bitcoin as legal tender, allowing the cryptocurrency to be used in any transaction, from buying a cup of coffee to paying taxes. The bold move, largely celebrated by the international bitcoin community, has found a more skeptical reception at home and in the traditional financial world, amid concerns that it could bring instability and unnecessary risk to the Central American country’s fragile economy."

The Biden agenda

With the bulk of their agenda on the line, Democrats are girding for the battle over the $3.5 trillion budget package. 
  • “The fate of President Biden’s $3.5 trillion economic agenda hinges on work that’s slated to resume on Capitol Hill this week, as Democrats attempt to overcome their internal divisions and craft what could be the largest spending package in U.S. history,” Tony Romm reports. “The next few days could prove daunting for top lawmakers in the party tasked with assembling a bill that can satisfy their past promises to remake broad swaths of the American economy. The work is set to unfold primarily in the House beginning Thursday, when the chamber has scheduled a series of grueling marathon legislative sessions to toil over the finer details of its plans.
  • “But significant political quarrels already have plagued the party, complicating its attempts to adopt a proposal as large as $3.5 trillion before the end of the month. Chief among their headaches is Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), who said last week that he would not support a package with that price tag.”
  • “With no room for error, Democrats have been forced to confront the reality that they may have to compromise some of their own ambitions, not to overcome opposition from Republicans but rather to quiet dissent among their own ranks."
  • “At the center of the fight is the package’s price tag, since the final figure ultimately determines the policies that lawmakers can adopt. Moderates including Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) already have sounded public skepticism about shelling out as much as $3.5 trillion on reconciliation.”
  • “One Democratic lawmaker, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the party’s internal deliberations, said they are already resigned to a corporate tax increase that is closer to 25 percent — and have yet to build enough support for other tax hikes targeting investments or corporate income earned abroad.”
Biden is visiting the storm-ravaged areas of New York and New Jersey. 
  • Biden departed Washington on Tuesday to visit areas of New York and New Jersey that were battered by the remnants of Hurricane Ida, his second trip surveying damage from a storm that killed dozens of people across the United States,” the Times’s Katie Rogers and Anne Barnard report. “The trip will give Mr. Biden another opportunity to demonstrate his commitment to the federal government’s storm response and build support for an infrastructure package that he has promised would help safeguard against future storms.”
  • “The president’s travel is expected to include a stop in Queens, where several people were killed in flooded basement apartments. Climate change has made low-lying dwellings particularly treacherous: Of the 13 people found dead in New York City from the storm, at least 11 were in basement units, according to the city’s Department of Buildings.”
  • “Ida killed at least 25 people in New Jersey — more fatalities than in any other state — and several people remain missing. Mr. Biden is also scheduled to visit Manville, N.J., where floodwaters caused explosions and fires in buildings across the town.”
Biden’s plans for electric cars hinge on having enough chargers.
  • “In Biden’s vision of a green future, half of all new cars sold in 2030 will be electric. But something really basic is standing in the way of that plan: enough outlets to plug in all those cars and trucks,” the Times’s Niraj Chokshi, Matthew Goldstein and Erin Woo report. “The country has tens of thousands of public charging stations — the electric car equivalent of gas pumps — with about 110,000 chargers. But energy and auto experts say that number needs to be at least five to 10 times as big to achieve the president’s goal. Building that many will cost tens of billions of dollars, far more than the $7.5 billion that lawmakers have set aside in the infrastructure bill.”

Quote of the day

“The achievement disparities have worsened in the last year and a half. As educational leaders, we have to muster whatever political will we can to hit the reset button on those things we know didn’t work. And double down on making sure that as we reopen our schools, not only that they’re welcoming, that they’re safe, but also that we’re going to bring students back to a system that equalizes the playing field,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a Post interview. 

The pandemic

The number of covid-19 patients in hospitals in the U.S. has more than doubled since last Labor Day. 
  • The sobering statistic “illustrates how the delta variant has hampered progress in curbing the pandemic even as vaccines became widely available,” write Annabelle Timsit, Adela Suliman and Bryan Pietsch.
  • “While the situation is not as dire as it was at the beginning of this year, when more than 3,100 people were dying of covid-19 daily in January, the rise in hospital admissions for covid patients is straining resources in many states. Hospitals in Florida and Mississippi have said in recent weeks that they are running out of ICU beds — which also affects patients who need other kinds of health care since the facilities don’t have the space or staff to treat them.”
  • “In Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas, more than 90 percent of the ICU beds in hospitals that report data to the Department of Health and Human Services are in use, agency data shows.”
The Wuhan lab still stands as a big mystery. Our colleagues spoke to visiting scientists and pored over reports to sketch out its history. 
  • “One chilly morning in February 2017, a tall Chinese scientist in his 50s named Yuan Zhiming showed Bernard Cazeneuve, then the French prime minister, around Wuhan’s new high-security pathogen lab,” Eva Dou, Pei Lin Wu, Quentin Aries and Rebecca Tan report. “Built with French engineering, it was China’s first P4 lab, one of several dozen in the world with that highest security designation. Yuan, the director of the lab, had worked more than a decade to make it a reality.”
  • “Yuan and his colleagues at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) hoped they could help prevent another catastrophe like the SARS outbreak in 2003, which embarrassed Beijing and resulted in the dismissal of the health minister. But just a couple of years after the P4 lab’s ribbon-cutting, China was engulfed in a far deadlier outbreak. Yuan’s team hadn’t prevented it. And worse, some suspected they might have been involved in its genesis.”
  • “Yuan has vociferously denied that the WIV had any part in the coronavirus pandemic’s origins. ... [But] mid the scrutiny, the WIV has turned inward.”
A comparison between two U.S. school districts — one in suburban Virginia, the other in rural Pennsylvania — shows how divided school leaders are. 
  • “When the school board that oversees [Clarion, Pa.’s] tiny district of about 730 students voted on a safety plan over the summer, there was no discussion of masks. School administrators had drawn up a plan that did not require them, and one board member who believed they should be mandated did not even raise the question. He was certain it was a nonstarter,” Moriah Balingit and Hannah Natanson report.
  • “In Alexandria, Va., the decision to mandate masks was just as uncontroversial. Superintendent Gregory Hutchings Jr. said he encountered no resistance when the word went out that children and staff would have to wear them in school buildings.”
  • “So how did these two communities, facing the same deadly threat, come to such different conclusions about what should be done about the pandemic? The answer is relatively simple. Parents and school leaders in both places firmly believe in their respective approaches. Neither thinks the path they are pursuing is particularly controversial.”

Hot on the left

“The politicians who sponsored Texas’ abortion ban are backed by some of the nation’s most prominent corporations,” write Popular Information’s Judd Legum and Tesnim Zekeria. “These same corporations hold themselves out as champions of women's rights. AT&T, for example, is one of the top donors to the sponsors of Texas' abortion ban, also known as SB 8. Since 2018, AT&T has donated $301,000 to the sponsors of SB 8. Yet, in AT&T's 2020 Diversity, Equality and Inclusion Report, CEO John Stankey said one of the company's ‘core values’ was ‘gender equity and the empowerment of women.’ ... Comcast/NBCUniversal, for example, has donated $58,250 to the sponsors of SB8 since 2018. In 2020, NBCUniversal announced a year-long advertising campaign focusing on ‘women’s empowerment.'"

Hot on the right

State GOP leaders are pushing new 2020 election reviews as the Arizona report looms. “Top Republicans in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have recently thrown their support behind new hunts for fraud or irregularities in the last election. Pennsylvania state Senate President Jake Corman sidelined a prominent Republican backbencher who had tried to lead an investigation and instead empowered a committee chair to launch one with his support. That effort is hiring vendors and scheduling hearings,” Politico’s Zach Montellaro reports. “There is no mechanism to actually overturn the certified results of the 2020 election. But what these investigations could do is fuel former President Donald Trump’s lies about the election or prompt new efforts to enact state voting restrictions.”

Casting in Hollywood films, visualized

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” starring Simu Liu, is Marvel’s first solo film led by an Asian hero and featuring a mostly East Asian cast. Part of what makes this film’s casting notable is that Asians overall still get little face time in Hollywood movies. According to the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s annual study looking at “Inequality in 1,300 Popular Films,” of the top 100 films of 2019, only 7.2 percent of all speaking characters were Asian, Shelly Tan reports

Today in Washington

Biden is traveling to New Jersey and New York to survey damage from Hurricane Ida. 

Vice President Harris is meeting with U.S. ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar.

In closing

Over the last few days, schools all over the world have welcomed back students for in-person teaching. Here's what the first few days of school looked like amid the Delta variant: