USA

She keeps Biden on track as Democrats try to thwart him

The morning after his poor performance at the debate, President Biden appeared at a campaign rally but then disappeared into thin air, retreating to Camp David to limit political damage.

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

Though Ms. O’Malley Dillon is not a member of Biden’s inner 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 course and moving forward.

She is involved in every part of the campaign’s strategy and tactics except the most important question: Should Biden stay in the race at all?

“She has no doubt that he should continue,” said Ron Klain, Biden’s former White House chief of staff who returned to the campaign to lead preparations for the presidential debates. “Her advice is focused on how to effectively move the campaign forward.”

While the title of campaign manager still belongs to Julie Chavez Rodriguez, who helped launch Mr. Biden’s re-election campaign last year, Ms. O’Malley Dillon has been the functional manager of his candidacy since early this year, serving as the main conduit to top donors and political allies. She and Jeff Zients, the White House chief of staff, were the only two staffers present at Mr. Biden’s meeting with Democratic governors last week.

Ms. O’Malley Dillon, who disdains the press and focuses on the campaign’s internal tasks, has long been known as someone who values ​​loyalty and competence — and who does not confuse one with the other. She has declined to be interviewed and has rarely agreed to paper interviews.

In her only extended interview Since taking over Biden’s campaign, she told the news site Puck a few days before the debate that she had few doubts about the outcome of the November election.

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

Since the debate, Ms. O’Malley Dillon has put her name to the Biden campaign’s daily all-staff morning email, which sends the day’s briefings to organizers in swing states and offers updates on the thinking of senior leadership at the campaign’s headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware.

In an email last week, she and Ms. Chavez Rodriguez told campaign officials that Mr. Biden’s poll numbers were not as bad as the news media portrayed them, highlighted the campaign’s latest fundraising numbers and asked aides to beef up its latest television ads.

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

Ms. O’Malley Dillon, who has rarely been known for being Pollyannaish amid political turmoil, is not seen by former colleagues as someone who would advise Mr. Biden to take any course other than staying in the race.

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

“She sees the handwriting 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 candidate since Al Gore in 2000 except Hillary Clinton — and she briefly volunteered in New Hampshire for Bill Clinton’s re-election campaign from 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 in to professionalize a ragtag operation that was nonetheless on the verge of capturing the Democratic nomination. After he won, she became deputy chief of staff in the White House.

Earlier in the 2020 campaign, she moved to El Paso with her husband and three children to manage former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s presidential campaign.

There, according to a person familiar with the campaign, she clashed with the candidate and tolerated little internal dissension as his campaign struggled. She tried to persuade Mr. O’Rourke to look more presidential in his clothing choices and to deliver a less impromptu campaign speech than he had used during his campaigns for the House of Representatives and the Senate in Texas.

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

If we go all-in on Mr. Biden at this point, that means pushing the campaign despite calls from fellow party members to end his campaign and let someone else become the party nominee instead of 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 it all but impossible to oust Mr. Biden, who won nearly every delegate in the primaries, without his consent.

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

Larry Cohen, a Sanders supporter who served as co-chair of the committee with Ms. O’Malley Dillon, said she was probably aware by now that Mr. Biden would have to wait until July 19. That’s when the Democratic National Convention’s Rules Committee meets to set 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 Monday. “She knows that even a week from now will probably be too late if he doesn’t step down this week. And he’ll survive.”

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

In 2015, she was a chief strategist for the Canadian Liberal Party when Justin Trudeau was first elected prime minister.

In October, Mrs. O’Malley Dillon wrote a summary of the lap of honour 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 organizational structure and voter outreach campaign imported into Canadian politics from the Obama team.

But she also stressed the importance of running an optimistic campaign that is not just focused on negative statements about the opponent.

“Pay attention, Donald Trump,” she wrote. “While mean, pessimistic rhetoric may initially appeal to the base, optimism almost always wins out in the end.”

Almost.

Rebecca Davis O’Brien contributed to the reporting.

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