By Edward Wyckoff Williams
WASHINGTON — In 2012 the nation's first African-American president, Barack Obama, proved to be the ultimate comeback kid. After being vilified by his Republican opposition, the president won a surprisingly decisive re-election. A rainbow coalition of Asian-Americans, Hispanics, white progressives and independents joined forces with a solid African-American constituency to deliver a victory.
Democrats gained seats in both houses of Congress -- shrinking the Republican stronghold to which the tea party rise had given birth. America summarily rejected xenophobic attacks on immigrants, race-baiting of the black president and flawed economic theory that tax cuts for the wealthy trickle down to the poor.
Obama's success seems to be a full repudiation of Jim Crow-style politics. The nation's demographic shifts -- first revealed in 2010 census data -- outlined the writing on the wall, spelling an end to the Republicans' Southern strategy.
The change that so many progressives had hoped for in 2008 may first have appeared stymied by the visceral obstinacy from Republicans that Obama endured during his first term. The president's inclination to compromise with Republicans left many a liberal fearing that he'd fail to be the transformative figure they had believed in.
But it appears that those fears were unfounded. Promises made were promises kept: The nation was rescued from the brink of economic collapse, programs to assist the unemployed and impoverished were expanded, health care reform was signed, "Don't ask, don't tell" was repealed, the war in Iraq was ended and Obama even became the first sitting president to express support for same-sex marriage equality.
The American people got the memo.
Beyond retaining the Oval Office, Democrats saw a wave of liberal ideals embraced at the ballot box. Colorado and Washington state voted to decriminalize recreational use of marijuana -- joining several states that already allow regulated medical usage. Same-sex marriage won popular-vote victories for the first time at the state level, and national polls showed that a majority of Americans agree with the president on that issue.
During the presidential campaign, the fate of the Affordable Care Act under a potential Romney administration remained in doubt. Now "Obamacare" paves the way for universal health care coverage -- a key tenet of Democratic philosophy for more than half a century.
Yes, it appears to be the dawning of a Democratic age -- a shift from the dominance of neoconservative ideology that has dominated American political thought since the Reagan era.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's declaration that his No. 1 priority was to make Obama a one-term president fell on deaf ears. Increasingly, younger, browner voters are choosing the Democratic message: Women's reproductive rights are not negotiable; minority rights are not debatable.
So what's next for the Democratic Party? Although long-term demographic shifts clearly favor Democrats, the Republican establishment maintains its regional dominance in the Deep South and parts of the Midwest. Strategic attacks on organized labor in Wisconsin and Michigan -- America's industrial heartland -- prove that the GOP remains emboldened.
Dismantling workers' rights empowers corporate tycoons, takes bargaining power away from the working and middle classes and undermines an egalitarian society -- making the American dream an elusive dream indeed. But this strategy also has electoral implications. As membership decreases, unions become financially strained -- less able to promote their message or support progressive candidates.
And it doesn't stop there. The GOP's efforts to systematically disenfranchise African-American and Hispanic voters through new voter-ID laws may have been thwarted by Attorney General Eric Holder's Justice Department in 2012, but some Republicans are now scheming to change the Electoral College setup in several states ahead of the 2016 contest.
One battle is over, but the war continues.
And Democrats, though excited about the possibility of a resilient Hillary Clinton or a popular Joe Biden continuing Obama's legacy, must face the hard truth that both of those candidates are older, wealthy and white. Just as Republicans must change with the times, so must Democrats.
There is no African-American or Hispanic Democrat in the U.S. Senate. There are no prominent Asian-American leaders within the Democratic Caucus. And Republicans have more minority governors currently serving than Democrats do.
The excitement of Obama's presidency provides a thin veil over the underlying problem of a lack of diversity within the nation's progressive party. Democratic leaders must reflect the coalition that put them there: black, brown, white, gay and straight. Obama may have rewritten the rules, but the Democratic Party will need to make fundamental changes in order to remain credible and representative in the post-Obama era.
For the times, they are a changin'.