President Barack Obama said he wasn’t “hiding the ball” from U.S. voters after microphones recorded him asking Russia for patience on missile defense negotiations until after the November election.
“I don’t think it’s any surprise that you can’t start that a few months before a presidential and congressional election in the United States,” Obama told reporters at a nuclear security summit in Seoul today, adding that a planned U.S. missile-defense system in Europe was one of the “primary points of friction” between the two nations.
The exchange picked up by microphones yesterday spilled over into the U.S. presidential campaign as Obama and Mitt Romney, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, are pivoting toward the election. Romney accused Obama of having a hidden agenda for his second term, and Russian leaders weighed in on the U.S. political debate.
Romney, who has been criticized by his Republican rivals for shifting positions, called Obama’s words to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev yesterday “alarming and troubling” and said it raised questions about whether Obama was being candid with voters.
“This is no time for our president to be pulling his punches with the American people,” the former Massachusetts governor said at a campaign stop in California. In an interview with CNN, he went on to say that Russia was “without question, our number one geopolitical foe.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters in Seoul that Russia was a partner for the U.S. on many issues.
“In a world where al-Qaeda is so clearly the preeminent threat to the United States, it seems a little inaccurate to make that statement about Russia,” Carney said.
Romney’s remarks drew a sharp reaction from Russian leaders. Medvedev said the Republican candidate’s characterization of Russia as the enemy “smacks of Hollywood.”
Republicans in the U.S. should “use their brains and check the clock” and move away from Cold War attitudes, Medvedev told reporters in Seoul.
Mikhail Margelov, head of the international affairs committee of the Russian parliament’s upper chamber, said if Romney becomes the Republican Party’s candidate, he will have to develop a more balanced foreign policy.
“Foreign policy is often held hostage to domestic political interests during election campaigns,” Margelov said in an interview in Seoul.
Obama said the public understands that he is committed to reducing nuclear stockpiles, which requires building trust and cooperation. He said an election year wasn’t conducive to “thoughtful consultations” on a difficult issue.
The microphones recorded Obama asking Medvedev to let Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin know that he needed to “give me space” to deal with objections to the U.S.’s missile-defense plan.
“This is my last election, and after my election I have more flexibility,” Obama said to the Russian leader.
“I understand,” Medvedev replied in English, adding that he would “transmit this information to Vladimir.”
Earlier today, Obama appeared to joke with Medvedev about the open-microphone incident as the two greeted each other at the morning session of the nuclear security summit. Just as he was about to greet the Russian leader, the U.S. president said “wait” and smiled as he covered the microphone on the table in front of him with his hand. Obama then walked over and shook Medvedev’s hand, laughing.
Impact on Voters
Obama’s comment to Medvedev is likely to resonate mostly with voters already dissatisfied with the president, reinforcing criticism he hasn’t pursued a sufficiently muscular foreign policy, said Dan Schnur, an adviser to Republican Senator John McCain’s 2000 bid for the White House who isn’t affiliated with any current campaign.
Schnur compared the comment to a Romney adviser’s statement last week that the Republican candidate could move past positions taken during the party primary “like an Etch A Sketch” to reset impressions for the general election. Former Senator Rick Santorum, one of Romney’s rivals in the Republican race, cited that as evidence Romney lacks core beliefs.
“If you already distrusted Obama, this gives you one more reason to help prove your point,” Schnur, director of the Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, said. “If you’re a supporter of the president, you probably dismiss it in precisely the same way Romney’s supporters dismiss the Etch A Sketch comment.”
Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, said the issue won’t overshadow the economy as the main issue in the election.
“People in the middle will make their assessments on his track record on the economy and his fiscal irresponsibility” more than comments picked up by an open microphone, Ayres said.
Economic rather than foreign-policy issues have dominated voter concerns throughout the campaign. In a Bloomberg National Poll conducted March 8-11, the most important issue mentioned by respondents was unemployment and jobs, cited by 42 percent, followed by the federal deficit, cited by 21 percent, gasoline prices and health care.
The missile-defense plan, which the U.S. has said is aimed at thwarting an attack from a rogue nation such as Iran, has been a source of tension with Russia even as Obama has attempted to reset the relationship.
“The United States is committed to implementing our missile-defense system, which we’ve repeatedly said is not aimed at Russia,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said yesterday in a statement. “The two presidents agreed it was best for technical experts to spend time determining their respective positions and provide space on missile-defense cooperation going forward.”
Putin, who won a six-year term in the Kremlin in the March 4 presidential election, last month accused the U.S. of “shying away” from talks over its missile plan and warned that his country will have to develop an asymmetric response to counter the U.S. system in Europe to maintain the balance of power.
Obama and Putin are scheduled to meet face-to-face when leaders of Group of Eight nations hold a summit at Camp David, Maryland, the U.S. presidential retreat, in May.
Putin is already skeptical of Obama, and the U.S. president’s remarks -- along with attacks from his political opponents -- will highlight the lack of trust between Moscow and Washington, said Dimitri Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest, a policy group in Washington, and a former adviser to President Richard Nixon.
“The skeptics in Moscow and Washington will have a field day,” Simes said. Long term “they won’t do any real damage, but they will confirm the suspicions of each side about the other.”