On April 12, 2015, Hillary Clinton announced what many had suspected since 2008: she is running for president again. Instead of the typical fanfare that accompanies these announcements, this one was decidedly high-tech and low-key, coming in the form of a video less than three minutes long that was posted on YouTube and shared across social media platforms. Clinton’s announcement video was a veritable melting pot of Americans: A Black couple expecting a baby; a gay couple planning their wedding; Hispanic brothers starting a business. Clinton isn’t even in the video until nearly halfway through, an obvious attempt to focus on “Everyday Americans,” as opposed to herself. With nearly 100% name recognition, Clinton doesn’t need to introduce herself to voters as other candidates may need to in the coming months. But she still has work to do before she is the Democratic nominee for president in 2016.
There is no throne to which Hillary Clinton will automatically ascend. There are several other potential candidates who should be seen as strong contenders, including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, former Virginia Senator Jim Webb, and former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee. This is not to mention sitting Vice President Joe Biden, to whom the nod would normally go as a presumptive nominee. While the Democratic presidential primary may not be as contentious as it was in 2008, one should not make the mistake of believing that Hillary Clinton’s path to the White House is clear and, therefore, should not be challenged by other well-qualified Democrats.
Unfortunately, we are already seeing shades of unearned entitlement from fervent Clinton supporters, as if donors, prominent Democrats and potential voters should automatically be in lock step with the Clinton campaign now that she is officially in the race. Despite the fact that Clinton is the first Democratic candidate to announce and that she has released no information on her policy stances, there are some who are angry that New York Mayor Bill deBlasio and others have not endorsed her as the presumptive nominee. On Day One of a 577-day race to the White House, any endorsement seems premature and ill advised. Many will be waiting to see how Clinton navigates the need to align herself with the Democratic Party and its de facto leader, President Obama, while simultaneously setting herself apart as the best candidate based on merit.
Although Clinton understandably wants to distinguish herself from President Obama such that she is not considered to be running for his “third term,” she and her supporters must tread lightly in order not to alienate potential voters. Planned Parenthood tweeted on the day of her announcement: “In US history, there has not been a presidential candidate w/ a stronger commitment to women – or a clearer record on behalf of their health.” Yet the first bill President Obama signed into law was the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which addresses wage discrimination against women in the workplace. Further, one can strongly argue that ObamaCare giving millions of women access to guaranteed preventive women’s health services previously unavailable to them is a record that no future president will ever be able to match. It is these types of subtle digs at President Obama, a tamping down of his achievements in order to boost Clinton’s, which will not sit well with many in the Black community, whose memories are long and whose votes are necessary.
There are a substantial number of fences that “Hillary for America” must mend with the Black community if Clinton is to earn Black votes, going back to the contentious primary between her and then-Senator Obama in 2007. In 2007 and early 2008, former President Bill Clinton had biting words for candidate Obama, publicly comparing Obama’s primary victory in South Carolina to Jesse Jackson’s campaigns in the eighties. Further, Bill Clinton alleged that the Obama campaign had played “the race card” on him and seemed hyper-focused on Obama’s lack of experience. Infamously, Bill Clinton called Obama’s record on Iraq the “biggest fairytale I’ve ever seen.” These statements and others did not sit well within the Black community and left many with a bad taste in their mouths. While Bill Clinton and not Hillary made these statements, a candidate takes on the baggage of his or her spouse. Further, Clinton touted herself as the better candidate to win “hard-working Americans, white Americans,” all but abandoning her attempts to win the votes of Blacks once then-Senator Obama established himself as a strong contender in 2008.
Some potential Black Democratic voters have indicated that, while they will support Hillary Clinton should she become the eventual nominee in 2016, it will not be with the same fervor as they did for President Obama, in part because of a sense of bad blood experienced during the 2008 campaign. Indeed, many Blacks are saying that Hillary Clinton is not their first choice to receive the Democratic nomination in 2016 and that they will be anxiously waiting to see whom else enters the race. These sentiments must not go unchecked by Hillary for America because Black voters, while not a monolith, are a large constituency that must be courted by Democrats to win the presidency. There is a sense of entitlement that Hillary Clinton has not earned within the Black community, allowing her supporters to mistakenly take Black votes for granted. Hillary Clinton will have to earn our support and our votes just as any other candidate does.
Every voter should wait until all candidates discuss important policy issues before deciding whom to support. One issue that will be on the minds of many Blacks during the 2016 presidential race is the excessive use of often-deadly force by law enforcement officials. Nearly every week there is a new name added to the list of Black people who have committed little or no crime but are victims of police violence. It will be important for the candidates to discuss concrete ways they plan to address the real concerns of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. However, no candidate should stand on the dead bodies of our fallen to boost themselves politically.
Clinton did herself no favors by waiting nineteen days after Mike Brown was killed to give her thoughts on his death and the aftermath. Many wondered why it took so long for her to make a statement and whether she was waiting for the volatile moments in Ferguson to end. Interestingly, Clinton timed her remarks to fall on the 51st anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington. Whether this was political posturing or merely a coincidence, Clinton did not endear herself to many in the Black community by waiting until it appeared that the most tumultuous days had passed. A few days after Walter Scott was killed by a police officer while running away unarmed, the official Hillary Clinton account tweeted: “Praying for #WalterScott's family. Heartbreaking & too familiar. We can do better – rebuild trust, reform justice system, respect all lives.” While the acknowledgment is appreciated, these cannot be empty words. The focus must be on the justice system, including police brutality and the school to prison pipeline, instead of name-dropping those who were unjustly killed when it seems politically expedient to do so.
While many have predicted that Hillary Clinton will be the next President of the United States, she has several hurdles to surmount before she takes the oath of office. Not only must Clinton win the general election, she must win the Democratic primary. Neither of these outcomes is assured and Clinton will need Black votes to succeed in both contests. Toni Morrison once called Bill Clinton “the first Black President” (a quip she would later regret,) but Hillary Clinton has no automatic “in,” with the Black community. Although she may be found to be the most qualified Democrat in 2016, Hillary Clinton will still have to make amends with the Black community before winning our enthusiastic support and our votes.