AP White House Correspondent
SEOUL, South Korea — Speaking to the microphones intentionally this time, President Barack Obama on Tuesday assured he had no hidden agenda with Russia for a second term, seeking to contain a controversial gaffe that bounded all the way to the campaign trail at home and back again.
Obama got caught on tape Monday telling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have more room to negotiate on missile defense after getting through a November election, presumably expecting to win and not have to face voters again.
Obama’s Republican rivals back home pounced, accusing him of secretive plotting and dealing over American national security. So one day later, with Medvedev at his side again, Obama tried some on-the-record candor and humor to put it all to rest.
The president’s explanation: He wants to work with Russia on the deeply divisive issue of a missile defense shield in Europe, knowing only by building trust first on that matter can he make gains on another goal of nuclear arms reductions. And there’s no way to expect progress during the politics of this election year, so he is already looking to 2013.
“This is not a matter of hiding the ball,” Obama said, well aware of criticism erupting at home. “I’m on record.”
Still, Obama had not meant for his initial political assessment to be heard. It was picked up by live microphones during a meeting with Medvedev and soon shot around the world. “This is my last election,” Obama was heard telling Medvedev, Russia’s outgoing president. “After my election, I have more flexibility.”
Obama showed up at a nuclear security summit ready to clarify his caught-on-tape words even at the risk of overshadowing his message for a second day. He fielded a question but failed to address the presumptuousness of plotting 2013 strategy with Russia when, in fact, he must win election again for any of that to matter.
For Russia, the issues of nuclear weapons reduction and the proposed missile shield are related. Russian fears of new U.S. missiles at its doorstep in Europe have helped to stymie further progress on nuclear arms reductions after a breakthrough agreement two years ago.
Obama said he wants to spend the rest of this year working through technical issues with the Russians, and said it was not surprising that a deal couldn’t be completed quickly.
“I don’t think it’s any surprise that you can’t start that a few months before presidential and congressional elections in the United States, and at a time when they just completed elections in Russia, and they’re in the process of a presidential transition,” Obama told reporters. He spoke after making a separate announcement on nuclear security.
The president also sought twice to use humor to dispense with the controversy.
Before taking his seat at the nuclear summit, he caught Medvedev’s eyes and said “Wait, wait, wait, wait.” Obama then covered up his microphone in jest, enjoying a hearty laugh and handshake with the Russian leader.
And when he decided to offer his explanation about the flap, Obama said, “First of all, are the mics on?”
Obama’s candid remarks Monday illustrated the political constraints that hem in any president who is running for re-election and dealing with a congressional chamber — in this case, the House — controlled by the rival party.
Republicans have fought Obama fiercely on health care, taxes and other issues. They are eager to deny him any political victories in a season in which they feel the White House is within reach.
Mitt Romney, the leading Republican contender to face Obama this fall, told a San Diego audience the unguarded comments were “an alarming and troubling development.”
“This is no time for our president to be pulling his punches with the American people, and not telling us what he’s intending to do with regards to our missile defense system, with regards to our military might and with regards to our commitment to Israel,” said Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who often faces charges of having been flexible on his own policies over the years.
Rick Santorum, who is Romney’s chief rival, said Tuesday that Obama’s comments suggested he is willing to sacrifice U.S. security and the security of its allies.
“This isn’t about politics. This is about the president’s real agenda,” Santorum said in Beaver Dam, Wis. “The president’s real agenda is to withdraw, to allow — whether it’s the Russians or the Chinese or whoever it is, the Iranians — let them have their run of the table because America’s no longer in the business of protecting ourselves and our allies.”
Republican candidate Newt Gingrich also questioned Obama’s motives.
“I’m curious, how many other countries has the president promised that he’d have a lot more flexibility the morning he doesn’t have to answer to the American people?” Gingrich said Monday on CNN.
Neither Obama nor Medvedev knew they were being heard when they conferred quietly at what was billed as their last meeting of Medvedev’s presidency. He leaves office in May, to be replaced by the incoming Vladimir Putin.
According to ABC News, Medvedev replied in English: “I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”
Obama said the way the Republicans seized on his comments only made his point that the atmosphere is too politicized right now to advance arms control with Russia.
“The only way I get this stuff done is if I’m consulting with the Pentagon, if I’m consulting with Congress, if I’ve got bipartisan support, and the current environment is not conducive to those kinds of thoughtful consultations,” Obama said. “I think we’ll do better in 2013.”
There, again, Obama’s remarks suggested he feels good about his re-election prospects.