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Jennifer O’Malley Dillon Keeps Biden on Track as Democrats Try to Derail Him

The morning after his poor debate performance, President Biden appeared at a campaign rally and then went dark, retreating to Camp David and avoiding political damage control.

One of the people pushing for him to more aggressively counter public doubts about his health was Jen O’Malley Dillon, his campaign chair. Within days, Democratic governors were summoned to the White House for a meeting, and a campaign rally was scheduled in Wisconsin.

Though Ms. O’Malley Dillon is not a member of the innermost Biden circle — a space reserved for family members and aides who have spent decades with the president — she has emerged in this political crisis as the central figure keeping the Biden campaign on track and driving it forward.

She is involved in every element of the campaign’s strategy and tactics, except the most important question: Should Mr. Biden remain in the race at all?

“She doesn’t have any doubt about whether he should continue,” said Ron Klain, Mr. Biden’s former White House chief of staff, who returned to the campaign to lead the president’s debate preparations. “Her advice is focused on how to move the campaign forward effectively.”

While the title of campaign manager is still held by Julie Chavez Rodriguez, who helped start Mr. Biden’s re-election effort last year, Ms. O’Malley Dillon has been the functional head of his bid since early this year, serving as the chief conduit to top donors and political allies. She and Jeff Zients, the White House chief of staff, were the only two staff members in Mr. Biden’s meeting last week with Democratic governors.

Disdainful of the press and focused on the campaign’s internal tasks, Ms. O’Malley Dillon has long been known as someone who places a high value on loyalty and competence — and who does not confuse one for the other. She declined to be interviewed and has rarely consented to on-the-record interviews.

In her lone extended interview since taking over Mr. Biden’s campaign, she told the news site Puck days before the debate that she had little doubt about the result of the November election.

“Joe Biden is going to win, period,” she said.

Since the debate, Ms. O’Malley Dillon has taken to putting her name on the Biden campaign’s daily morning all-staff email, which sends the day’s instructions to organizers in battleground states and provides updates about the thinking of senior leadership at headquarters in Wilmington, Del.

In one email last week, she and Ms. Chavez Rodriguez told campaign employees that the polling for Mr. Biden was not as bad as the news media was portraying it, highlighted the campaign’s latest fund-raising numbers, and asked the staff to amplify the latest television advertisement.

“She is making sure that every member of staff has a clear window about the imperatives of the moment,” said Michael Tyler, the campaign’s communications director. “She understands the need for everybody to be on the same page now.”

Rarely known to be Pollyannaish amid political turmoil, Ms. O’Malley Dillon is not seen by former colleagues as someone who would suggest any course to Mr. Biden beyond remaining in the race.

Michael LaRosa, a former press secretary for Jill Biden, the first lady, said he believed Ms. O’Malley Dillon was not blind to Mr. Biden’s political doldrums or his family’s insistence that he remain in the race.

“She sees the writing on the wall,” Mr. LaRosa said. “She also knows how he and his family see the reality of the situation.”

Ms. O’Malley Dillon, 47, is a Boston-born veteran of Democratic politics. She has worked for every Democratic presidential nominee since Al Gore in 2000, except for Hillary Clinton — and she briefly volunteered in New Hampshire for Bill Clinton’s re-election campaign in 1996.

She worked on both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns but didn’t enter the Biden orbit until March 2020, when she was brought on to professionalize what had been a ragtag operation that was nevertheless on the cusp of seizing the Democratic nomination. After he won, she became a deputy chief of staff in the White House.

Earlier in the 2020 campaign cycle, she had moved her husband and three children to El Paso to run former Representative Beto O’Rourke’s presidential campaign.

There, according to a person who was involved with the campaign, she clashed with the candidate and brooked little internal dissent as his campaign struggled. She tried to persuade Mr. O’Rourke to appear more presidential with his clothing choices, and to deliver a less improvisational stump speech than he had been accustomed to giving during his House and Senate campaigns in Texas.

“She is one of the hardest-working people,” Mr. O’Rourke said in an interview on Monday. “She’s incredibly dedicated, fiercely loyal and when she’s in, she’s all in.”

Being all in for Mr. Biden at this moment means pushing the campaign through calls from fellow Democrats to end his campaign and allow someone else to be the party’s nominee against former President Donald J. Trump.

But few people know better than Ms. O’Malley Dillon the ins and outs of the party’s rules that make Mr. Biden, having won nearly all of the delegates during primary season, all but impossible to dislodge without his consent.

Among other roles, she is a former executive director of the Democratic National Committee. And when the party’s leaders split into competing factions supporting Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders after Mr. Trump’s 2016 victory, Ms. O’Malley Dillon was appointed to lead a committee responsible for rewriting the presidential nominating rules, which ultimately clipped the power long held by convention superdelegates.

Larry Cohen, a Sanders acolyte who served as co-chairman of the committee with Ms. O’Malley Dillon, said she was probably aware now that Mr. Biden needs to hold on until July 19. That is when the Rules Committee of the Democratic National Convention will meet to formalize a date before Aug. 7 for the party to formally nominate Mr. Biden — two weeks before the convention begins in Chicago.

“She knows the rules, she knows the process,” Mr. Cohen said on Monday. “She knows that even a week from now will likely be too late if he doesn’t step out this week. And he’ll outlast it.”

After helping Mr. Obama win re-election, Ms. O’Malley Dillon started Precision Strategies, a Washington political shop that took on corporate clients including General Electric and IBM as well as major labor unions.

In 2015, she was a lead strategist for Canada’s Liberal Party when Justin Trudeau was elected prime minister for the first time.

That October, Ms. O’Malley Dillon wrote a victory-lap recap of her firm’s work for Mr. Trudeau’s party under the headline: “Lessons for 2016 From North of the Border.” She wrote about an organizing structure and voter-contact campaign imported from the Obama team to Canadian politics.

But she also addressed the importance of running an optimistic campaign that wasn’t focused solely on being negative about one’s opponent.

“Take note, Donald Trump,” she wrote. “While mean-spirited and pessimistic rhetoric may play to the base early on, optimism almost always wins out in the end.”


Rebecca Davis O’Brien contributed reporting.

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