Emanuel, speaking about policies to reduce gun violence, during one of his not-so-rare trips to Washington, D.C., earlier this month.
Emanuel, speaking about policies to reduce gun violence, during one of his not-so-rare trips to Washington, D.C., earlier this month. Credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Rahm Emanuel had gone so long without making an overt play for national attention that I hadn’t been in a decent is-he-or-isn’t-he-running debate in weeks.

And then came President Obama’s inauguration. Mayor Emanuel didn’t just go to see his former boss sworn in for a second term. He stuck around long enough to host a big-time party that was one of the hottest tickets in town.

When he returned to Chicago, he was aglow, like Cinderella back from the ball. Suddenly, he didn’t seem content to live in his stepmother’s house anymore.

Sure enough, last week he made a Freudian slip at a press conference, where he joked that a high school student was ready to “primary me in 2016“—that is, take him on in that year’s Democratic primary.

The thing is, the mayor’s race—for which Emanuel is ostensibly raising money—is in 2015, and it doesn’t have any primaries. It’s the presidential hunt that occurs in 2016.

In no time, political circles were buzzing with the age-old question about the mayor’s presidential plans.

Well, before I attempt to read the tea leaves, let me say this: The mayor insists that he’s not running.

Of course, the mayor always says he’s not running—just as no one believes him when he says it.

He recently went so far as to tell a Tribune reporter that he has no presidential aspirations. I believe his exact quote was “No, no, no, no, no.” Though I may have missed a no or two.

“I’m not interested,” he said. “I love what I’m doing. I think being mayor is the best job promotion I’ve ever gotten.”

OK, Mr. Mayor—if you say so.

Last May he went one step further. During an interview with Fran Spielman of the Sun-Times, he handwrote and signed a pledge on her notepad: “I, Rahm Emanuel, will not run for another office, ever.” Everyone from City Hall to the White House parsed that statement as if it were a legal document, looking for his out. Why doesn’t anyone believe him? Because even as he denies presidential aspirations, he feeds media interest in them.

I’ve never seen a Chicago mayor more adept at playing the national press. Just last weekend I opened my New York Times to find his mug splashed on the front page of the business section. He’s everywhere!

This was under an article about big cities divesting their pension funds “from companies that make firearms.”

That’s an issue he adopted soon after the school shootings in Connecticut, when it became apparent that the whole country—or at least a majority of voters—wanted some additional kind of gun control.

Before that were breathless write-ups by pundits who stopped in Chicago long enough to describe Emanuel as a visionary who’d figured out a way to fund government without raising taxes. In other words, the exact message the mayor wanted to send, even if it wasn’t and isn’t true—as anyone who lives in this town could tell you.

Let’s face it: Chicago’s just too small a market for Mayor Emanuel. He’s an international figure who’s turned himself into a one-named icon: Rahm! Sort of like Madonna, only without the outfits or the dance moves.

Rahm! doesn’t even seem interested in making a stamp on Chicago. How can he when he’s always dashing off to Washington or New York?

In contrast, Mayor Daley was always proposing grandiose projects and schemes that would leave a footprint long after he was gone: new parks, airports, arenas, political conventions, an Olympics.

Ah, the good old days—I’m working myself into a lather just remembering those old fights over exactly how Daley was going to get his way.

But Mayor Emanuel? The biggest thing he’s proposing is a casino. He says he needs it to bring in more revenue so he can make good on his promise not to raise taxes—which he’s already broken, so I don’t know why he’s so worried about keeping it.

Unlike Mayor Daley, Rahm! hasn’t launched a campaign to build new schools—on the contrary, he’s determined to close them.

Mayor Daley spent most of the 1990s building neighborhood libraries. Mayor Emanuel came into office promising to close them, or at least cut their hours. He had to back off after a public outcry let him know that people—even north-siders—still use libraries. Who knew?

For the most part, Mayor Emanuel’s been using Chicago as a backdrop to promote his brand as a new Democrat who rides into town and beats the crap out of unions. Particularly teachers.

From where I sit, it’s not a particularly helpful image for a guy to cultivate if he’s interested in getting elected president, since union members and their supporters constitute a large chunk of the voting bloc in Democratic primaries. Now, should Mayor Emanuel ever get around to becoming a Republican—as opposed to ruling like one—we’re talking potential front-runner!

Anyway, I used to be one of those folks saying he’s running. But I’ve changed my mind. I now find myself agreeing with our mayor when he says there’s no way he’s running.

Not as long as there’s even a remote possibility that Hillary Clinton will run.

That’s just not Emanuel’s style. He never enters a campaign in which there’s a prominent front-runner he’ll have to overtake.

His style is to schmooze the powerhouses and get them to endorse him, thus clearing the way of all potential challengers.

He did that when he ran for Rod Blagojevich’s old congressional seat, when he won Mayor Daley’s blessing.

And he did that again when he ran for Mayor Daley’s old seat and was all but ushered into office by President Obama himself.

Well, President Obama just went on 60 Minutes and gave Hillary Clinton an effusive send-off from her four years as secretary of state. It was even more effusive than the one he gave Emanuel when he left the White House to run for mayor.

No way Mayor Emanuel’s running against that kind of power.

So what does that mean for us, the people of this fair city?

The mayor moves to Plan B. He settles in for a while and starts to think about the legacy he wants to leave in Chicago, as opposed to the one he takes from Chicago. Maybe he dusts off some of the wackier stuff that Mayor Daley left behind. I fear a bid for an Olympic-like event we can’t afford.

Of course, there’s always a chance Rahm! might step away from City Hall to run for senate. One can only hope.