Ruth Marcus doesn’t exactly sound disappointed [see update below] to hear Barack Obama shift back to the populist rhetoric he used during the Democratic primaries.  She asked Obama about his sudden shift away from market-based objectives as he toured the states in which Hillary Clinton creamed him, and — tellingly — whether oil companies had any more moral guilt than other corporations.  Obama’s answer, and his shifts, provide a clear picture of someone who adopts positions for political expediency rather than conviction:

Yes, but what does Obama himself believe? “I think oil companies are amoral. They want to make as much money as they can for their shareholders, which is what corporations do,” he says. “The difference is the nature of the kind of outsized profits they make that may have no relationship to their investments or their production. The fact, for example, [that] the shortage of refinery capacity could actually increase their profits so the less they invest the more they make indicates that you are not dealing with someone making widgets out there.”

Obama circled back to our conversation when a questioner at yesterday’s town hall meeting asked why he singled out oil companies. This time his answer ventured beyond refinery capacity and widgets.

“So the question is, does it make more sense for the oil companies to pay for it or does it make more sense for the struggling waitress who is barely getting by to pay for it?” he said. “And the answer is, I’m going to fight for the waitress, not because I hate the oil companies but because I think it’s more fair.”

Oil companies haven’t built refineries in 30 years not because they want to keep profits high, but because environmentalists won’t let them build refineries.  Every time one gets proposed, a blizzard of lawsuits and regulatory hurdles follow, eventually making the construction of refineries impossible to justify.  Oil companies would much rather refine oil for consumption domestically, but thanks to these burdens, we now have to import — at greater cost — 20% of the refined gasoline we use, as well as 70% or more of our crude oil.

Beyond that, the waitress/oil company argument says something more.  Obviously, we sympathize with the waitress, but does that mean we hobble oil companies, especially when the pricing of oil has little to do with the corporations and everything to do with international supply and demand?  We could in fact help both the “waitress” and the American oil companies by expanding domestic production, which would create American jobs and allow American oil companies to compete better against the massive, state-owned foreign oil companies around the world.

What Obama sees as more “fair” is just another way of saying that he wants government to pick winners and losers.  It’s class warfare with a smile, or rather a pitying condescension that winds up pitting people against each other rather than looking for the best solution for the nation as a whole.  Waitresses and oil companies are not opponents or enemies in a free market, but that kind of recognition escapes populists and those who prey on class-warfare impulses for political gain.

It’s interesting that Obama reverted to this populism while touring Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan.  Hillary bested him in all three states in the primaries despite using the same populist tripe, although Hillary busied herself with the same kind of rhetoric.  Perhaps Obama thinks that being the last populist in the race will allow him to reverse his losses in the latter stages of the primary campaign, but even Marcus thinks this could be a miscalculation.  It distances Obama again from the center and emphasizes his status as a big-government, tax-and-spend liberal.

Will the electorate buy yet another shift from Obama?  Or will they see him as an opportunist, a chameleon who has changed his political appearance so often that no one can tell who he really is?

Update: On re-reading the column, I may not have characterized Marcus’ column and approach fairly.  She does sound at least skeptical about Obama’s shifts.  As one reader pointed out, Marcus hardly sounded supportive of Obama’s efforts on energy policy in her column yesterday:

The same can’t be said for his deja-vu-all-over-again proposal to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (see Al Gore 2000, John Kerry 2004), or for his $1,000-per-family “energy rebate,” a whopping $65 billion cost to be paid for with a windfall-profits tax. Just a month ago, Obama was saying that there was no need to tap the reserve and that such a move should be saved for a “genuine emergency.” Oil was more than $140 a barrel then. It’s less than $120 a barrel now. What’s changed, except for the better? Still, as gimmicks go, tapping the reserve is a more effective one than a gas tax holiday.

As for a windfall-profits tax, if you want to produce more energy, it hardly makes sense to give oil companies less incentive to make investments. Nor does it make sense to tax companies because market conditions boost their profits — any more than homeowners and shareholders should be penalized for selling during a boom.

Obama, too, has descended to misleading. He accuses McCain of wanting to give $4 billion in tax breaks to oil companies — without mentioning that this is no special oil-only deal, just part of McCain’s proposal for an overall reduction in the corporate tax rate, something Obama has said he’d consider. Does that put him in the pocket of Big Oil, too?

As always, read the linked material and judge accordingly.