10/23/2012 09:34 am ET Updated Dec 23, 2012

In Debate, Obama Begins to Sharpen End Game

President Obama showed a clear and confident command of foreign policy in the third and final presidential debate. Just as importantly, he showed glimpses of his end game, laying out a coherent plan for the next four years and overtly tying Mitt Romney's plans to the failed policies of the Bush-Cheney past.

The president's superb performance came as his Republican opponent has pulled even in the national polls and within a whisker in key swing states.

That the commander in chief would outperform the challenger on foreign policy was perhaps to be expected. But his sharper summary of future goals and his willingness to package Romney as a retro, Bush-Cheney reprise were refreshing additions to the president's arsenal.

For his part, Romney, ever the chameleon, used this debate to sell himself to women as a peace-loving dove, a breathtaking shift from recent months when he called for a harder line than the president in Syria and Iran and hedged on America's withdrawal in 2014 from Afghanistan. To anyone watching closely -- which few voters, it seems, do -- Romney once again proved adept at changing his colors, if not his very "core" beliefs, to suit the moment. It's a sleight-of-hand that somehow has brought him momentum instead of derision in recent weeks.

As I watched last night, I recalled what I suspect are the tactical roots of Romney's free-flowing ability to redefine reality. It was eight years ago that a senior Bush aide widely speculated to be Karl Rove sneeringly told New York Times magazine writer Ron Suskind that reporters like him -- people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality" -- were simply out of touch.

"That's not the way the world really works anymore," the senior aide told Suskind. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities."

Certainly Mitt Romney even before the election has proven himself skilled at "creating new realities." Most of his positions slither right, then left (depending on the audience) atop several core Big Lies -- that he can cut taxes 20 percent while balancing the budget, that he has 12 million new jobs stashed somewhere to right the economy, that he can make America fully energy independent in eight short years.

To me, it all sounds oh so much like Bush III. And l can only hope the American public can still recall what happened under the stewardship of Bush II.

That Emperor's New Clothes were not only threadbare by the end of his second term, they were plain bare, just like the children's book of the same name. I suspect this would-be emperor, Romney, would arrive at the inauguration in the same outfit.

Obama, of course, is fighting hard to avoid that possibility. Monday night the president began to drive Romney's resemblance to the past.

"Now Governor Romney has taken a different approach throughout this campaign," he said.

Both at home and abroad, he has proposed wrong and reckless policies. He's praised George Bush as good economic steward and Dick Cheney as somebody who shows great wisdom and judgment. And taking us back to those kinds of strategies that got us into this mess are not the way that we are going to maintain leadership in the 21st century.

The quote could use some fine-tuning in the days ahead. But its sentiment needs to be one of three key components of the president's dash to the finish.

Even more important will be the president's vision for the next four years, a piece of the campaign puzzle he's been rightly criticized for obscuring. Last night, he set a clear course.

He called for bringing manufacturing jobs "back to our shores by rewarding companies and small businesses that are investing here, not overseas." He stressed education and "retraining our workers for the jobs of tomorrow." He spoke of developing American energy, not just traditional energy but also "the energy sources of the future." He called for a balance of deficit reduction and added revenues that would be achieved "by asking the wealthy to do a little bit more" for such things as investment in research and technology. And he suggested that we might rebuild America's infrastructure by at the same time putting to work the country's war-weary returning veterans.

When the president refines this list and adds to it bullet points of his key accomplishments (from GM alive and bin Laden dead to stronger schools and health care), he'll be ready for the final push: (1) Here's what I've done (2) Here's what I will do (3) Here what the American people don't need -- more Pipe Dreams, more Big Lies and more Bush-Cheney.

Will it work? My predictions aren't worth much; after Romney's infamous 47 percent quote, I never thought things would be this close. But at least this approach will carry the fight to the Romney-Ryan campaign, something Obama-Biden hasn't done enough of as the campaign has wound down.

In recent weeks, Obama's camp has tried to play small ball, tried to strategically guard a handful of swing states. I feared -- and still fear -- that the president will lose with this end game. On Monday night, he showed signs that both he and his campaign have abandoned that tack.

In Debate 2, the president found his offense. In Debate 3, he sharpened it.

Let's hope the electorate noticed.