What is the real Obama? A uniter or a divider?
President Barack Obama certainly is not a socialist -- let alone a communist -- as some of his far-out detractors claim. But he and his aides certainly are in populist "whack industry" mode.
From BP to banks, health insurance companies to special interest lobbyists, Obama & Co. pass up no opportunity to slash and bash -- except when they are asking for industry cooperation or appealing for national unity.
The dichotomy between one rhetorical mood and the other is so pronounced that you almost suspect the administration and its leader are bipolar.
Or that they are juggling the need to govern cooperatively with the need to pander to the president's sometimes-restive left wing and the populist mood du jour.
In February, for instance, Obama-the-unifier told the Business Roundtable -- that is, big business CEOs -- that "a thriving America is within our reach, but only if we move forward as one nation, only if we move past the debates and crippling divides between left and right, business and labor, private enterprise and the public sector."
This came a few weeks after Obama denounced "reckless" "fat cat bankers," whom he accused of conspiring with House Republicans to "kill financial reform and leave American consumers and our economy vulnerable to another meltdown."
It came amid nonstop vilification of the health insurance industry as Obama sold health care reform -- even though that industry initially proposed the basic design of universal coverage, insurance reform and an individual mandate.
At an early stage of that campaign, Obama included pharmaceutical companies and hospitals in his "special interest" denunciations -- until their lobbyists made sweetheart deals with the administration and, in the case of drug companies, spent $100 million on ads backing his plan.
Even though health care reform has passed and is in the midst of a complicated process of implementation -- requiring cooperation from the insurance industry -- the administration is still on the attack.
Late last month, when America's Health Insurance Plans, the industry lobby, announced that companies would speed up implementation of the law's ban on rescission of policies except in cases of fraud, the White House reacted snarkily.
"Health reform made rescissions illegal because all Americans should be able to rely on quality care when they need it most," top Obama health adviser Nancy-Ann DeParle said. "It's heartening to see that the insurance companies who employed these terrible practices -- and fought reform -- are coming around doing the right thing by instituting the ban right away. We'll be watching closely and holding them to their word."
Rescission -- canceling an insurance policy -- is a "terrible" practice when it's used to avoid paying a legitimate claim, but in most cases, it's an anti-fraud device and it's rare. State regulators say it occurs on less than 0.4 percent of policies.
By contrast, Medicare, which pays almost every claim, loses about $60 billion a year to fraud, 10 percent of its total budget.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the Cabinet officer most responsible for implementing reform, has said she expects the process to involve "hand-to-hand combat" with insurance companies.
When insurance companies discovered that the health care law as written did not require them to guarantee insurance to children with pre-existing conditions -- only to cover children with existing policies -- Sebelius accused them of "seeking to avoid or ignore" the law.
She threatened to change it by regulation. When the industry agreed to guarantee coverage on its own, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs sent out a tweet: "Kids 1, Insurance 0."
Sebelius, a former Kansas governor and insurance commissioner -- and earlier, chief state lobbyist for trial lawyers, the nemesis of insurance companies -- also jumped immediately on disputed allegations that the nation's largest insurer, WellPoint, systematically cancels coverage for breast cancer victims.
The day after a Reuters story made the charge, Sebelius wrote a letter to WellPoint CEO Angela Braly, a celebrated campaigner against breast cancer, urging her to "end the unconscionable practice of deliberately working to deny health insurance to women diagnosed with breast cancer."
Braly wrote Sebelius, "To be absolutely clear, WellPoint does not single out women with breast cancer for rescission. Period."
The company said it rescinded less than 0.1 percent of all its policies last year, usually because claimants had made significant misstatements of fact in applying for insurance.
As Obama has made clear many times, his animus against the insurance industry is "personal," based on his mother's struggle with an insurance company when she was battling cancer.
But blasting business is not confined to insurance. Last weekend, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar twice said the administration intended to keep its "boot on the neck" of BP over the Gulf oil spill.
But then what do we make of Obama at the University of Michigan last week, saying that "vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise"?
My own hunch is that Obama, at heart, is not a socialist but a liberal without the slightest idea of how private enterprises create wealth -- and deeply suspicious of their practitioners.
But he knows that unifying rhetoric is what the country wants to hear. So one day it's one thing. Another day it's another. If this is right, it won't stop, and it's very sad.
Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.