ABC News’ Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller report: The East Room of the White House filled with members of the Cabinet and top administration staff, from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Attorney General Eric Holder, as President Obama and chief of staff Rahm Emanuel bid each other a tearful, hug-filled, bromantic adieu Friday morning.
Applause filled the cavernous room – “this is not for me,” the president noted – as the president called today “a bittersweet day here at the White House.”
In a not-so-subtle reference to Emanuel’s exploration of a mayoral run, the president said, “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 a incomparable leader of our staff and one who we are going to miss very much.”
While Emanuel’s wife Amy and their children Zach, Ilana, and Leah sat in the front row — along with the president’s brother Zeke, a senior adviser to the director of the Office of Management and Budget — the president feted the feisty Chicagoan, explaining he “told him that he had no choice in the matter” in being his chief of staff, not only because of his experience as a Democratic Leader in the House and Clinton White House political director, but also because “he just brings an unmatched level of energy and enthusiasm and commitment to every single thing that he does.”
At enormous sacrifice and personal inconvenience for him and his family, Emanuel “exceeded all of my expectations,” the president said, listing Emanuel’s – and his own – accomplishments. “It’s fair to say that we could not have accomplished what we’ve accomplished without Rahm’s leadership, from preventing a second Depression to passing historic health care and financial reform legislation, to restoring America’s leadership in the world.”
The president also praised Pete Rouse, his longtime aide and chief of staff for the interim period, though that may possibly be made permanent. At the White House, the president said, Rouse has “taken on a series of management and legislative challenges with his customary clarity and common purpose. There is a saying around the White House: ‘Let’s let Pete fix it.’”
To laugher, the president noted that the garrulous, outsized personality Emanuel and the laconic, low-profile Rouse “have slightly different styles.” Emanuel “when he was a kid, had lost part of his finger in an accident, and it was his middle finger, so it rendered him mute for a while. Pete has never seen a microphone or a TV camera that he likes.”
An emotional Emanuel thanked the president for his warm friendship and confidence.
“I’m energized by the prospect of new challenges and eager to see what I can do to make our hometown even greater,” Emanuel said.
He praised the president effusively, saying he’d watch him “confront some of the toughest challenges of our time… with unfailing grace, intelligence and courage…Mr. President, I thought I was tough. But as someone who saw firsthand how close our nation came to the brink and what you had to do to put America back on track, I want to thank you for being the toughest leader any country could ask for in the toughest times any president has ever faced.”
Saying he’d watched the president not just as a staffer but as a friend, Emanuel recalled seeing “what few are privileged to see. The father whose heart breaks when he writes a letter to parents whose son or daughter has been lost on the field of honor. The man of quiet, committed faith who always appeals to the better angels of our nature. And the proud product of the American dream, who sees in the reams of economic statistics the child who struggles and the single parent with limited income, but unlimited potential.”
Choking up, Emanuel said he too had lived that dream.
“My father and my grandfather came to this country for opportunity,” he said. “They came here for a better life for their children. My mother marched with Martin Luther King because she believed that none of us is truly free until all of us are. Both my parents raised me to give something back to the country and the community that has given us so much.”
He also thanked the president for his patience, given Emanuel’s temper. “I’m sure you’ve learned some words that you’ve never heard before, and …an assortment of combinations of words.”
He thanked his wife Amy, “and our three remarkable children, Zach, Ilana and Leah, without whose love and support none of this would have been possible. I hope to end this soon so they can all get back to school today and finish their exams.”
“Thank you all,” he said. “I look forward to seeing you in Chicago.”
– Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller