Would Hillary Clinton inherit Obama's black voter enthusiasm?

Story highlights

  • David Love: The former secretary of state would need to woo African-American voters to turn out in big numbers for 2016
  • Memories of the bitter 2008 battle with Barack Obama still linger, he writes

David A. Love writes for thegrio.com. He is a writer and human rights activist based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidALove The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Hillary Clinton held a closed door meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House on Monday. Although the former secretary of state, senator and first lady has not declared, it is treated as a foregone conclusion that Clinton is running for president.

Likely to launch her campaign in April, Clinton is regarded as the front-runner — if not the only Democratic candidate — and the inevitable Democratic nominee.
There is an assumption that since Clinton supported Obama, the black community will now embrace her. But there are more than a few who didn't get that memo. At this stage of the game, many African-Americans may not be excited about a candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016. And after two terms of the nation's first black president, she should proceed with caution.
David A. Love
Clinton need look no further than the 2008 contest, when black voters doused water on her presidential prospects. Early on, Clinton was the favorite of black folks, lest you forgot, and it did not hurt that President Clinton had been regarded as the "first black president" with high approval among African-Americans.
Then, support for a senator named Barack Obama blew up after the Iowa caucuses. And Clinton found herself apologizing for her husband's comments about Obama's win in the South Carolina primary.
President Clinton was relieved of his black card privileges for the remainder of the 2008 election season when he compared Obama's win in the Palmetto state to that of Jesse Jackson in 2004 and 2008, suggesting that Obama, like Jackson, would not win. The misstep was an affront to many African-Americans, as were Hillary Clinton's suggestions on the campaign trail that Obama was only good for making speeches, but not for taking action.
And let's not forget her assertions that she was the candidate for "hard-working Americans, white Americans."
We can chalk up some of that rhetoric to spirited campaign-trail junk-talking, and obviously much has happened since the 2008 election. President Obama made Clinton his secretary of state, and she served as a capable top diplomat and a loyal member of the Obama Cabinet. But that does not mean black voters will completely forget the bitter, racially tinged presidential campaign politics of seven years ago.
Black voters are among the most loyal of the Democratic Party base, and their record high turnout for Obama was an important part of his victory. However, with a charismatic Obama no longer on the ballot, maintaining the same level of enthusiasm for any other candidate is a challenge.
Moreover, as for Clinton, who (understandably?) has her own ideas and may not agree with the President on certain issues, any criticism of Obama could cost her some black voters. Remember that Clinton voted in favor of the unpopular, costly and deadly Iraq war. That support cost Clinton in 2008. And while she has remained silent on the recent re-election of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Clinton's strongly pro-Israel stance on Mideast peace now appears at odds with the emerging consensus among major groups in the Democratic base, including blacks, Latinos and young voters.
However, it is likely that foreign policy will not pose as great a challenge to Hillary Clinton as economics. Because she is tied to the Wall Street wing of her party and commands sky-high speaking fees, people may take a closer look at her approach to tackling inequality and the shrinking of the middle class, and whether she is too concerned about offending the wealthy. The nation is hurting, despite the economic turnaround, and this is felt particularly strongly among blacks, who still have high unemployment rates, a rising wealth gap compared to whites, and, for many, no recovery in sight.
And while police shootings of young black men continue to stir outrage in the community, Clinton has remained relatively quiet on the subject. She will have to prove that she can identify with this frustration and offer ideas for reform in local law enforcement. This, rather than her email account, is what concerns the black electorate.
Perhaps a populist, more down-to-earth challenger such as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren or former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb could appeal to black and working-class voters, and unlike Clinton, would not have to fight the perception of living in a protective security bubble, or lacking core beliefs other than being in power.
It is safe to assume that if Clinton wins the Democratic nomination that she will ultimately win the majority black vote in the general election, but that may not be enough. Let's remember President George W. Bush won re-election in 2004 with just 11% of the black vote. Had Mitt Romney been able to duplicate that number of black votes, he would be president now.
Obama won in no small part because blacks turned out for him in record numbers in 2012, particularly in swing states like Ohio.
Clinton can't assume she'll inherit that same level of black voter enthusiasm. Support for Barack Obama does not necessarily translate into support for another Democrat. This means Clinton must fight for votes like anyone else: knock on doors, kiss babies, clap off beat at the AME church, and do whatever it takes.