Republicans are livid about a comment that President Obama made -- unaware that it was being captured by an open microphone -- to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Referring to protracted discussions over the placement of a U.S. missile defense system in Europe, Obama said: "On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this can be solved. But it's important for [incoming President Vladimir Putin] to give me space. This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility." Sounding like a spy, Medvedev responded: "I will transmit this information to Vladimir."
Were Obama's comments proof that he was "pulling his punches with the American people" and obscuring his plans for the missile defense system? That’s what Mitt Romney suggested. John R. Bolton, whom conservatives would like to see as Romney’s secretary of State, called the remarks a "fire bell in the night" and a harbinger of capitulations to come if Obama is reelected. Karl Rove contributed a piece to the Fox News site headlined "Why Obama's Open Mic Slip Could Seriously Hurt his Re-Election Hopes."
The overheard Obama remarks were certainly a gaffe, but that was because they were overheard. The president should have been more discreet and wary of electronic amplification. But the comments themselves are defensible, even obvious.
The Russians don't need Obama to tell them that it's bad timing for him to accelerate negotiations that would bring exactly the sort of outcry from hard-liners that greeted his "private" comments. It's likely he or his emissaries have pointed to the election as a reason for patience on other fronts. It would be no surprise, for example, if the administration has been telling Palestinians it will be more likely to press Israel to stop West Bank settlements after the U.S. election.
Obama insists that he isn't trying to "hide the ball" from the American people about his plans for missile defense and said he would continue to work with the Russians on the issue later this year. He can now expect to be asked, by Romney or a debate panelist, if he would be willing to share details of the missile defense system with the Russians to assuage their fears that it might undermine their nuclear deterrent.
It's a fair question, and Obama should answer it, but he committed no sin in reminding the Russians that all sorts of issues, domestic and foreign, move to the back burner during an election campaign.
Photo: President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev after their meeting in Seoul. Credit: Jewwl Samad / AFP/Getty Images