WASHINGTON -- Before White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel gave his last briefing to President Obama near 5:30 p.m. Thursday, winding up a historic 20-month tenure, he looked exuberant and excited about returning to Chicago to run for mayor.
Emanuel flies home over the weekend and Monday launches his mayoral campaign -- not with a splashy announcement but instead a "listening tour" in Chicago's neighborhoods as he starts to build a coalition seeking to survive the Feb. 22 nonpartisan primary and prevail in the April 5 runoff.
Obama is giving Emanuel a going-away gift -- a high-profile send-off this morning from the White House East Room -- guaranteed to provide Emanuel massive -- and free -- media coverage back home in Chicago that no other of the many mayoral candidates can command. Don't confuse that with an official endorsement. I'm told there is an internal debate over whether Obama should get in the fray.
Emanuel returns to Chicago as a top-tier contender for mayor -- in a contest where, for now, there is no front-runner to replace Mayor Daley, who set up what will be a mighty political battle when he announced Sept. 7 he would not seek a seventh term.
Emanuel is switching gears -- going relentlessly local from a perch that has had him overseeing two wars and a tattered economy.
At the White House, Emanuel has had his hand in everything -- he's the tactician-in-chief -- who crafted the sometimes-pragmatic strategy that pushed Obama's agenda.
Said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs at the Thursday briefing, "The president starts his day with a meeting with Rahm and ends it with a meeting with Rahm. ...
"I think his leadership, his energy has helped us accomplish so much in helping our economy recover, in passing landmark Wall Street reform, health-care reform, credit card reform, student loan reform -- all of the things that -- there's not an important thing that has happened in this administration that we've been able to accomplish for the American people that has not involved heavily his signature," Gibbs said.
A rap on Emanuel is that he was instrumental in nixing the public option when the administration wrote the health-care bill. That's an assertion that has roiled unions, liberals and other elements of the progressive community -- with implications on Emanuel's mayoral bid.
Like many narratives in Washington, it's not the whole story. Health and Human Service Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said emphatically "no, no, no, no" on Thursday when I asked her if Emanuel killed the public option, at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.
Emanuel's role on the health-care bill, Sebelius said, was "more in the tactical, how do we get from here to there, you know, what is the pathway, what's the vote look like, who do we need, who don't we have, and he was very hands on in every step of that process."
I'm told by a source that Emanuel did argue against the public option in the health-care debate -- not on the policy, but because he saw it as a fight the Obama White House could not win.
This is important because Chicago is a union town, and some unions are preparing to work against Emanuel over, among other reasons, his role in shaping parts of the health-care law.
To try to change that narrative -- and show not all progressives are irked at him -- Emanuel, I am told, encouraged labor leader Gerald McEntee, the president of the giant public workers union AFSCME, to make it known he is supporting Emanuel for mayor; McEntee did so Thursday in an interview with Ben Smith at POLITICO.
FOOTNOTE: Emanuel will use AKPD -- White House senior adviser David Axelrod's former firm -- as his consultants. AKPD vice president of political affairs Buffy Wicks -- one of the nation's top grass-roots organizers and a veteran of the Obama presidential campaign -- will be a player on the Emanuel campaign.