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Chided for Working Against It as President, Obama's Backing of Medicare for All Called 'Thrilling' Shift

"This headline would have been politically unthinkable just a few years ago. Grassroots organizing and kitchen table conversations have changed the tide on Medicare for All."

Former President Barack Obama endorsed Medicare for All in a speech in Illinois on Friday, calling it "a good new idea." (Photo: @THR/Twitter)

While progressives pointed out that it would have been worthy of more applause if the offer of support had come back when he had the actual power to do something about it, Medicare for All proponents applauded the huge paradigm shift denoted by the newest high-profile endorsement of the popular proposal: former President Barack Obama.

Speaking at the University of Illinois in his first explicit rebuke of President Donald Trump and what was seen as his first major campaign speech for Democrats in 2018, Obama said that progressives "aren't just running on good old ideas like a higher minimum wage, they're running on good new ideas like Medicare for all, giving workers seats on corporate boards, reversing the most egregious corporate tax cuts to make sure college students graduate debt-free."

The speech, noted journalist David Sirota, was a clear sign that in the two and a half years since Hillary Clinton predicted that single payer healthcare would "never, ever" happen, Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) and other universal healthcare advocates' efforts to push the Democrats to embrace the proposal have been a success.

Sanders himself expressed appreciation for Obama's support:

New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also praised Obama's statement, and focused on what the endorsement means for the future of Medicare for All and the success of the grassroots groups that have led the charge demanding universal healthcare for decades—like Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) and Healthcare Now.

But a number of progressives expressed deep frustration at the former president—who said in 2003, "I happen to be a proponent of a single payer universal health care program"—for casting Medicare for All as a "new" idea.

"Respectfully, Medicare for All isn't a new idea," tweeted Bonnie Castillo, executive director of National Nurses United (NNU). "Union nurses have been campaigning for universal health care for years, but we are thrilled that Medicare for All is a mainstream issue now."

While working to reform the U.S. for-profit healthcare system as president—and with majorities in both the House and the Senate—Obama hastily rejected the possibility of adopting a single-payer plan, claiming it would "represent a radical shift" akin to right-wing proposals for all Americans to take on 100 percent of the responsibility of their healthcare costs. Medicare for All advocates have also argued that Obama and other Democratic leaders did not push hard enough for a public option to be included in the Affordable Care Act. 

As Shane Ryan noted at Paste Magazine, Obama's vocal support Medicare for All comes after the majority of Americans have already expressed approval for the proposal. Two weeks ago, a Reuters poll found that 70 percent of all Americans now favor such a program, including nearly 85 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans.

"Look, sarcasm aside, this is fine—Medicare for all is a terrific policy, and maybe Obama's support will whip the last of the recalcitrant congressional Democrats into shape," wrote Ryan. "It would have been nice if he could lead from the front on an important issue, for once, but hey, that's life at the top of the Democratic party."

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