Four years ago, the moniker Toni Morrison once bestowed on President Clinton, dubbing him America’s “first black president,” seemed particularly inappropriate. The former president, in supporting his wife, had turned into one of the strongest critics of the man who was on the verge of becoming the actual first black president. Clinton cast then Sen-Barack Obama as inexperienced and attacked him in ways that irritated notable African-Americans such as Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the most influential black Democrat in Congress.
Four years later, everyone has forgiven, if not forgotten. Clinton and Obama are now allies, if not close friends, and the ex-president is planning to spend much of the next two months stumping for Obama. And Clinton may have delivered a stronger defense of Obama’s record than the candidate himself in a stirring speech at the Democratic National Convention last week. The strain between Clinton and African-American Democratic activists is now viewed as a blip in a strong relationship that has lasted for two decades.
“Although there was a strain during the 2008 campaign, most African Americans I know are still very fond of President Clinton. It makes the family feel whole to see him and President Obama supporting each other,” said Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist who worked on the President Clinton’s 1992 campaign.
How deep the rift ever was between Clinton and the broader African-American community after 2008 is not exactly clear. While in office, Clinton’s approval ratings among African-Americans were always very high, and Obama’s dominance of the black vote in the 2008 primaries illustrated his strength and appeal as a candidate more than resentment toward Bill and Hillary Clinton.
But the anger expressed by Clyburn and other African-American leaders was striking four years ago. Under Clinton, the black middle class boomed, African-Americans held more top posts in government than ever before and Vernon Jordan emerged as perhaps the first-ever African-American to appear constantly playing golf with a sitting president.
At the same time, Clinton’s comments at the time seemed unusually tone deaf for a man who seemed very comfortable and familiar with blacks. And the swift denunciation of his remarks came from black leaders who had defended Clinton strongly when he was impeached over the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Obama’s embrace of both Clintons no doubt has shifted this dynamic. He appointed Hillary Clinton to his Cabinet and has now made numerous appearances with the former president. And liberal Democrats, tired of the Clintons in 2008, no doubt appreciate the former president’s ability to speak about how a Democratic president can lead the American economy forward and also Clinton’s appeal to some white, moderate voters who have been more resistant to Obama.
“There is no doubt when you look at the black delegates in the convention along with the other delegates, many of whom were white, it is no doubt that the positive response was overwhelming to him,” said Lorenzo Morris, a professor of political science at Howard University. He added, “I don’t think that there’s any heart-felt hostility.”
David Bositis, who studies African-American politics at the Joint Center for Economic Studies, said, “Anything he said four years ago is viewed as part of the campaign and long forgotten.”
This alliance could be important in 2016. While it’s not clear if either Hillary Clinton or Vice President Biden will run for president then, the black vote will be hugely important in determining the winner. African-Americans are the majority of the electorate in many key states, including South Carolina.