WASHINGTON -- Rahm Emanuel will hit the streets of Chicago on Monday morning to kick off his mayoral run with a planned long day of street campaigning -- after getting a running start Friday with a high-profile goodbye from President Obama to his first chief of staff.
"This is a bittersweet day in the White House," Obama said to about 150 people assembled in the East Room. "On the one hand, we are all very excited for Rahm as he takes on a new challenge for which he is extraordinarily well-qualified. But we're also losing an incomparable leader of our staff and one who we are going to miss very much."
At least 10 Cabinet members were seated in the front rows -- including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Obama lavished praise on Emanuel and passed the chief-of-staff baton to Pete Rouse, the senior adviser who is taking the job on an interim basis.
"Rahm has exceeded all of my expectations," Obama said.
Emanuel was seen and heard from for the first time in weeks at his departure ceremony -- that was a strategic move -- and he was quite emotional and sentimental. Obama and Emanuel hugged a few times, and Emanuel got all choked up.
"This is a bittersweet day for me, too,'' Emanuel said. "On the one hand, I'm excited to be heading home to Chicago, which as you know very well, Mr. President, is the greatest city in the greatest country in the world."
He didn't mention the word "mayor'' -- and Obama didn't say it, either. But Emanuel added, "I'm energized by the prospect of new challenges and eager to see what I can do to make our hometown even greater."
Who gets this kind of treatment?
No other chief of staff in recent history got this kind of send-off, but then none of them was leaving the White House to make the political run of their life. Obama did not give Emanuel a formal endorsement Friday. That may or may not happen -- it is a matter of some internal debate at the White House -- and if it comes, it may likely be if Emanuel survives the primary Feb. 22 on his own and needs the Obama boost to clinch the general election April 5.
Obama praised Emanuel during a brief session in the Oval Office on Friday that I attended along with three other reporters from Chicago news outlets.
"I think he would make an excellent mayor, and he would bring an incredible energy to the job,'' Obama said during a conversation that was off the record except for his few comments about Emanuel. Obama's comment Friday echoed words he used in an interview a few weeks ago when he was asked about Emanuel running for mayor.
For Emanuel to win the primary in a crowded field, he needs to re-engage his old base, his Northwest Side House District; run up numbers on the lakefront and North Side; get a percentage of the African-American vote; cobble together some Hispanic support and spend enough time on the Southwest Side so as not to concede any territory -- and to make sure that no one could say he wasn't trying to be a citywide candidate.
LaHood told me Emanuel "is a good campaigner, and he knows how to press the flesh, he knows grass roots, and he knows he has to get out there and work hard, and he will do it."
While Emanuel will be getting disproportionate media attention in the next few days, one rival camp thought it might backfire.
Dean Vallas, a senior adviser to mayoral hopeful Gery Chico, told me the Emanuel operation was "using the media to stage this election as Rahm is the inevitable candidate."