Tuesday night our president was articulate and forceful -- in sharp contrast to his performance in the first presidential debate. He stated his beliefs. He defended his record. He told America where he wanted to take the nation in his second term.
And he explained where Romney wanted to take us.
Romney says he's got a five-point plan. Governor Romney doesn't have a five-point plan; he has a one-point plan. And that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules. That's been his philosophy in the private sector; that's been his philosophy as governor; that's been his philosophy as a presidential candidate. You can make a lot of money and pay lower tax rates than somebody who makes a lot less. You can ship jobs overseas and get tax breaks for it. You can invest in a company, bankrupt it, lay off the workers, strip away their pensions, and you still make money.
Governor Romney... was on 60 Minutes just two weeks ago, and he was asked, is it fair for somebody like you, making $20 million a year, to pay a lower tax rate than a nurse or a bus driver, somebody making $50,000 a year? And he said, yes, I think that's fair. Not only that, he said, I think that's what grows the economy. Well, I fundamentally disagree with that.
Obama told voters what Romney's plan was for women (take away their freedom of choice), and for Hispanics (allow police to stop them and demand proof of citizenship, as in the Arizona law "that's his [Romney's] policy, and it's bad policy.")
He took responsibility for the security lapse in Libya, but made sure Americans understood the danger in Romney's shoot-from-the-hip, rush to judgment approach to foreign policy.
And the president explained why the way to create more jobs and to get the economy back on track is to strengthen the middle class, in sharp contrast to Romney's trickle-down redux.
Romney was as combative as in the first debate, but our newly-invigorated president made Romney's combativeness look like that of a child in a tantrum rather than a principled adult with facts and detailed proposals to support his position.
Romney was also an automaton -- moving robot-like across the stage, repeating the same scripted paragraphs in answers to different questions as if he had been programmed with a limited number of options.
Obama, by contrast, seemed steady and relaxed.
The debate left me relieved -- the president's performance will almost certainly stop Romney's momentum, and may turn the tide -- but also left me perplexed. Where was this Barack Obama in the last presidential debate? Was it the altitude in Denver, a failure of preparation, exhaustion, a temporary emotional glitch?
Mostly, though, I'm glad Barack is back.
ROBERT B. REICH, Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written thirteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock" and "The Work of Nations." His latest is an e-book, "Beyond Outrage," now available in paperback. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause.