When he leaves office in January of 2017—provided there isn't a terrible scandal or some kind of economic or foreign policy disaster between now and then—Barack Obama will likely be hailed as the greatest Democratic hero since John F. Kennedy. He got most of the way there just by winning a second term, before we even get to his already substantial policy successes. But the real reason is that for a long time to come, Obama will represent for Democrats the moment when they and their beliefs were ascendant. You can see it in the way some Democrats are already positioning themselves to run for president in 2016.
We'll get to those particular candidates in a moment, but what's important to know about them is that this new Democratic coalition you've heard so much about is going to produce its own kind of candidate. That isn't to say they'll necessarily be people you had never heard of until a couple of years ago; some will be politicians who came of age in an earlier era adapting to the way their party looks today. That party is multi-racial, hanging on its traditional near-complete support among African-Americans as it relies increasingly on Latinos and Asian-Americans (73 percent of whom voted for Obama in 2012). It's also more secular than before (even if most Democrats are still religious), concentrated in urban areas, and most important for the future, younger (Obama beat Romney among voters under 30 by 23 points).
You might say that sounds like the people who have always been Democrats. But consider that not too long ago, the party's wise leaders thought that for a Democrat to win a national election, he had to be from the South, with a drawl in his voice and the vernacular of small towns on his tongue. No more—in fact, though there are still a few prominent southern Democrats left, none of them are being touted as 2016 Democratic candidates. Potential presidential candidates now being mentioned (some with their cooperation, others not) hail from places like New York City, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, and Minneapolis. The urban, multi-racial Barack Obama is the apotheosis of the new Democratic candidate, even if the coalition took time to come into clear focus around him.
Perhaps most importantly, Obama—particularly the second-term Obama—does not apologize for liberalism. That isn't to say he's the most liberal guy around, because he isn't. But the very occasional smack at dirty hippies aside, he does not exude the fear of his party's ideology that characterized an earlier generation, scarred as they were by the Gingrich revolution of 1994. Candidates like Al Gore in 2000 or John Kerry in 2004 always seemed apologetic, terrified of being tarred as gun-hating, weak-on-defense, minority-coddling big-government Democrats. You could smell the fear coming off them from a mile away. But Democratic candidates in the next election, and maybe a few after that, are likely to be bolder and more aggressive. They're looking at the polls and their party's demographic makeup, and feeling suddenly free to advocate for liberal policies without shame. The radical turn the GOP has taken lately has something to do with it and it may change eventually, but nevertheless, Democrats are feeling ideologically bold in a way they haven't for decades.
Let's look, for instance, at the two governors who are as close to certain 2016 candidates as we have, New York's Andrew Cuomo and Maryland's Martin O'Malley. Both Cuomo and O'Malley successfully advocated to legalize same-sex marriage in their states. In the wake of the Newtown shootings, Cuomo pushed through a law making assault weapons and large-capacity magazines illegal; O'Malley is now pushing a similar law. O'Malley also wants to eliminate the death penalty in Maryland (which officially still has it, although it was suspended by a court order in 2006 and the last execution in the state was in 2005), and pushed hard for a state version of the DREAM Act that passed by ballot measure in 2012, allowing undocumented young people in Maryland to get in-state tuition at the state's universities. Cuomo wants to expand the conditions under which women can obtain a late-term abortion.
Yes, these are just a few issues, and one can argue that Cuomo in particular is not a raging liberal when it comes to economics. And yes, both governors lead very liberal states. But neither one is a wild-eyed idealist; they're both pragmatic politicians carefully charting a path toward the White House, and what's notable is how some aggressive liberalism now looks like the practical political course.
Is that just positioning to appeal to liberal primary voters? Maybe. But ten years ago, Democratic candidates wouldn't have dared, no matter what primary voters might have thought. To take just one example, the last Democratic nominee who was opposed to the death penalty in all cases was Michael Dukakis (John Kerry came close, saying he favored it only for terrorists). We got used to candidates from both parties shifting their positions on abortion to line up with their party (something both Gore and George H.W. Bush did), but now Democrats are moving left of where they were on issues like marriage equality and guns in order to make sure they can win the favor of the new Democratic coalition. Democratic politicians never felt shy about strong advocacy for a higher minimum wage or increasing taxes on the wealthy, but now they're realizing that "social" issues too are playing in their favor. The days when Republicans could sneer that a Democrat was a "[Northeastern state] liberal" and know that the attack would make the liberal in question shudder in fear seem to be over, at least for now.
Now, for the necessary caveats. We're still a long way from 2016—the race won't start in earnest until after the 2014 midterms (if you can bear to wait that long). Things can change quickly in American politics. We don't have to look back too far to be reminded; four years ago Barack Obama was going to usher in a generation of activist liberal government, and two years later the Republicans had taken the House and all anyone could talk about was how much we should slash federal spending. But the makeup of the parties won't change that much, and Republicans are likely to have the same problem they had in 2012: an ideologically extreme party base demanding perfect fealty to an ideology the broader public finds less than appealing. Democrats, on the other hand, look at their coalition and see a national majority to whom they can pander without much risk. If Republicans moved right, they'd be ensuring defeat at the polls. But some Democrats look like they're moving left, and it's for one reason: because it's good politics.