- Associated Press - Friday, October 1, 2010

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Obama on Friday said a bittersweet goodbye to the energetic and fierce manager of his White House, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, and elevated a quiet and seasoned adviser, Pete Rouse, to the most important gate-keeping job in American politics.

“We could not have accomplished what we’ve accomplished without Rahm’s leadership,” Mr. Obama said. Mr. Emanuel is departing after nearly two grueling years to run for Chicago mayor.

The announcement was such a poorly kept secret that Mr. Obama joked it was “the least suspenseful announcement of all time,” but it represented an important moment of transition for the presidency.

What Mr. Emanuel leaves behind is more than a staff job. It is the most demanding and influential position in the White House — save for Mr. Obama‘s. The person who holds it is entrusted to help shape the president’s thinking, prioritize his time, manage scores of egos and issues and keep the White House focused on its goals.

The mood at the White House reflected that this was no ordinary staff change. Cabinet members and senior staff members packed the ornate East Room, a setting often reserved for visits of heads of state, for the official word that Mr. Emanuel, the hard-charging leader of the staff, was on his way out.

President Obama listens as his outgoing Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel announces that he will be stepping down to run for Mayor of Chicago, during an event in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Oct. 1, 2010. Mr. Obama announced that Pete Rouse will be interim Chief of Staff. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
President Obama listens as his outgoing Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel announces ... more >

Mr. Rouse, named interim chief of staff, is a calm, trusted senior adviser to Mr. Obama who has spent much of his career as a chief of staff in the Senate.

“There is a saying around the White House: ‘Let’s let Pete fix it,’” Mr. Obama said. “And he does.”

In a nod to the political sensitivities of Mr. Emanuel’s move, he never directly mentioned that he was running for mayor, and Mr. Obama didn’t touch that, either. Mr. Emanuel, sure to be cast as an outsider by his competitors in the upcoming mayoral campaign, did not want to announce his run from Washington.

But Mr. Emanuel did call Chicago “the greatest city in the greatest country in the world.” And he told Mr. Obama, “I’m energized by the prospect of new challenges, and eager to see what I can do to make our hometown even greater.” The president and Mr. Emanuel, confidants and friends, hugged three times during the event.

“Mr. President, I thought I was tough,” Mr. Emanuel told Mr. Obama. “I want to thank you for being the toughest leader any country could ask for in the toughest times any president has ever faced.”

In an unusual display of emotion, Mr. Emanuel appeared to choke up as he spoke of his family’s immigrant background, and the opportunities he himself has been afforded.

Mr. Rouse, befitting his style, stood quietly by the president and never spoke. Mr. Obama described him as never seeing a television camera or a microphone that he liked — unlike the boisterous Mr. Emanuel. The differences were even apparent on stage — Mr. Emanuel with his trademark hands on hips, Mr. Rouse still and stoic.

Mr. Obama’s choice of a permanent chief of staff will come in the context of a personnel reorganization, with some key players already planning to leave the White House grind and others likely seeing changes in their portfolios. The results of the Nov. 2 House and Senate midterm elections will also be a factor.

The mantra in the West Wing is that no one who works for the president is irreplaceable. And yet that’s how they described Mr. Emanuel, a whirling force of ideas and energy with expertise in foreign policy, political campaigns, communications and the legislative process. Mr. Obama’s aides talk of an unquestioned loss.

More than 150 staff members filled the seats of the East Room, snapping photos. The atmosphere was more joyful than sad, though the mood turned sober as Mr. Obama ticked through the list of problems they tackled together in the first 20 months of the administration.

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