The headline in The Washington Post was intriguing: "Obama's Ideology Proving Difficult to Pinpoint." The article turned out to be a charitable discussion of whether the Democratic nominee is moving away from leftist positions he took during the primaries and toward the political center for the general election.
Of course he is. Enough to produce, as someone put it, whiplash. So let's give the topic a headline that directly addresses the doubts: Just who is Barack Obama?
Is he the inspirational juggernaut of the early primaries, the man who promised "change we can believe in" and a new era in American politics? Or is he one more politician whose actions often contradict his words?
Put another way, what does he believe in?
Damned if I know.
Once upon a time, I thought I did. Obama was the graceful rookie from Illinois who came out of nowhere to become the rock star of '08. His biracial heritage, Harvard Law School education and vast ambition created the perfect image of a post-racial, post-ideological agent of change. He would not be tied to the old ideas or the old ways of doing things.
It was a promise, exquisitely delivered, that allowed him to grab an early delegate lead and hold on to narrowly defeat Hillary (The Invincible) Clinton.
But there were hints Obama was not what he claimed.
The Rev. Jeremiah Wright was a big one. By the end of the primaries, Obama was stumbling and on the defensive. And now he has become yet another candidate altogether in the post-primary period.
On defining issues - security wiretapping, gun control, campaign finance, Iran and Iraq - he has done partial or full about-faces. Hardly a day goes by that he doesn't attack John McCain in typical partisan fashion.
And when he denies with a straight face that he's changing anything, Obama gives new meaning to chutzpah.
The changes have been so dramatic that many liberal activists are expressing buyers' remorse. Some are demanding their contributions back and vow not to support Obama until he adopts his old positions.
For me, a centrist Democrat and a hawk on security, most of his new positions are better than those he abandoned. But they're not believable. They create doubts about whether he has core beliefs.
Someone who can shift positions so quickly on so many important issues that will face the next President comes off as a man who doesn't have fixed convictions. Pragmatism has to be guided by principles. A man who believes in everything believes in nothing, and that's a formula for chaos in the White House.
Yes, I know, McCain has gone back and forth on tax cuts, immigration and some other issues. But McCain is a known quality. His POW heroics and his long career in Washington are universal fixed points of reference.
Like him or not, we think we know who John McCain is. It's a belief that doesn't depend exclusively on specific positions. As long as his policy shifts are few and explainable, the sense of who he is remains intact. It's something to trust.
Obama, without points of reference and a long career, doesn't have much room to maneuver. He is also limited by his promises of sweeping change in both results and process.
As William Galston of the Brookings Institution told The Post: "Successful campaigns tell stories that provide the framework of meaning and significance for particular policy proposals."
In other words, policies are expressions of the narrative and must be consistent with it. They are the meat on the bones.
That's where Obama has failed. In his rush to appeal to moderate voters, Obama has demolished his narrative. Political expediency is ordinary, and by embracing it, he has proven himself an eloquent but ordinary politician.
That's who Barack Obama is.