The real divide among conservatives, they say, is whether Barack Obama is merely incompetent or something more sinister. Is he just hapless when it comes to economics, naively supposing redistributive policies will effectively cure the economy? Or does he have an unrelated agenda that subordinates economic growth to the attainment of some vengeful end?

As someone who prefers to believe the best of everyone, I often think Obama is just like the rest of us: He does what he thinks is right and best. It just so happens that what he thinks is right and best — from the evidence, that would be the extreme growth of government through stimulative policies and corrupt cronyism — has been demonstrated to be ineffective at promoting freedom and prosperity … and he doesn’t seem to care. He ignores the evidence and pursues his tired solutions anyway. It’s also pretty obvious he doesn’t regard the Constitution with any particular kind of awe; the individual mandate in PPACA and his recent appointments in a non-recess period make that plain. Even if he’s just indifferent to the Constitution and to whether his policies promote freedom and prosperity, four more years of an Obama administration is a dangerous proposition — but some suggest he’s not just indifferent.

Dinesh D’Souza, for example, has famously postulated that a kind of misbegotten and outdated anti-colonial fury fuels Obama — and Newt Gingrich has famously called that postulation “brilliant.” Rush Limbaugh doesn’t go that far — he doesn’t speculate as to the roots of it — but, yesterday, he did say he accepts Obama’s oft-cited “rage” at America as real:

“I can’t get my arms around the fact that there are people born in this country who hate it…And, I know they are the people who taught Obama.”

“I know that he thinks this is an unjust country, that it was immoral in its founding…this 1% versus 99% stuff, that’s how he thinks this country was founded and that the 1% has maintained themselves in total control of all the wealth since the days of its founding.”

“He thinks the only remedy for it is to take everything the 1% has and give it away to everybody else. “

“Now, the ulterior motives to that are entrenching his own power.”

In Rush’s formulation, Obama isn’t an angry anti-colonialist; he’s a power-hungry fellow with something to prove who happens to have been severely misguided by people who really do hate America.

Now that I think more about it, that might make the most sense of all. It explains how it is that he had ambition enough to arrive at the presidency in the first place, but also why he often seems to be apathetic now. He’s angry, yes, but not even he knows exactly why. In D’Souza’s formulation, Obama himself is very aware of the reasons for his rage — but, if that were the case, then his anger wouldn’t wear itself out so easily. He wouldn’t disappear to the golf course or escape on elaborate vacations. He wouldn’t confess he has “a laziness” deep down inside him that wants nothing more than to relax on the beach in his home state of Hawaii. He’d actually be hungry for reelection, and not just for reelection’s sake — for the sake of advancing his outrageous agenda.

Sure, lately, he’s pandered to all kinds of voting blocs with half-hearted executive measures that could have only one motivation — his own reelection. But that’s the unifying principle of these measures; they appeal to some voting bloc. In other words, again, he seems to be interested in reelection for reelection’s sake — not for the sake of enacting some deeply-held worldview. Bruce Bartlett provides more evidence that Obama doesn’t really care whether he wins in 2012:

One of the games political journalists love to play is comparing every election cycle to one in the past. Not only is it fun, but there is enough consistency and cyclicality in American politics that it often yields worthwhile insights. That being the case, my view is that the 2012 election is starting to look a lot like the one in 1992.

The thing that strikes me most about the two elections is the intensity of the incumbent president’s desire for reelection. It’s not discussed too openly, but a number of Democrats have expressed concern that Barack Obama doesn’t look very much like he cares about winning. This was the case with George H.W. Bush in 1992 as well. …

Obviously, we are not far enough along in the 2012 campaign to say that Obama is following in Bush’s path. But there are disturbing signs that Obama seems less than fully engaged in his own reelection. For example, his fundraising thus far is lagging his 2008 pace; he recently installed a nonpolitical technocrat, Jacob Lew,  as White House chief of staff; and he steadfastly refuses to embrace the sort of populism that the Democratic Party base craves.

It makes me wonder: Is Obama really playing us — or might he have been played by progressives, as well?