SEOUL — President Obama told Russia’s leader Monday that he would have more flexibility after the November election to deal with the contentious issue of missile defense, a candid assessment of political reality that was picked up by a microphone without either leader apparently knowing.
Obama’s Republican opponents pounced on the comment, saying the president has a hidden agenda that could include concessions to the Russians if he is reelected this fall.
“This is my last election,’’ Obama is heard telling outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. “After my election, I have more flexibility.’’
Medvedev replied in English, according to a tape by ABC News: “I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir,’’ a reference to incoming President Vladmir Putin.
Obama and Medvedev, who met on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in Seoul, did not intend for their comments to be made public.
Once they were, the White House said Obama’s words reflected the reality that domestic political concerns in both the United States and Russia this year would make it difficult to fully address their longstanding differences over the contentious issue of missile defense. Obama, should he win reelection, would not have to face voters again.
“Since 2012 is an election year in both countries, with an election and leadership transition in Russia and an election in the United States, it is clearly not a year in which we are going to achieve a breakthrough,’’ said national security adviser Benjamin Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser.
Also Monday, Obama took North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong Un, to task for its latest military provocations. Meeting with China’s president, Hu Jintao, before the summit, Obama pressed Hu to help stop Pyongyang from proceeding with a satellite launch next month.
The United States views the impending satellite launch as a missile test that would be a breach of North Korea’s international obligations. The White House was stung by the announcement, which came only 17 days after the Obama administration had tentatively agreed to send North Korea desperately needed food aid.
In a speech at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, Obama said the United States will seek talks with Russia on steps to reduce the two countries’ arsenals of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons, as well as the number of warheads they have in reserve.
Obama’s candid remarks about negotiations on a missile defense system illustrated the political constraints that hem in any president who is running for reelection. Republicans in Congress are eager to deny him any political victories before the fall.
The comments gave the GOP new openings to question his sincerity and long-range plans.
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,’’ Romney said.
Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said Romney “is undermining his credibility by distorting the president’s words.’’
Republican presidential 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 on CNN.
Tensions over missile defense have threatened to upend the overall thawing of relations between the United States and Russia in recent years. After his meeting with Medvedev. Obama said there was “more work to do’’ to bridge their differences. Medvedev said each country had its own position but there was still time to find a solution.
Russia has criticized plans for a US-led NATO missile defense in Europe. Russian officials believe the planned missile shield would target Russia’s nuclear deterrent and undermine global stability. The United States says the planned missile shield is intended to counter threats from Iran.
Putin said earlier this month that Washington’s refusal to offer Moscow written guarantees that its missile defense system would not be aimed against Russia deepened its concerns. Putin won elections earlier this year and will return to the presidency in the spring. He is expected to name Medvedev prime minister.
The United States and Russia have also clashed recently over their approach to dealing with violence in Syria. The United States has sharply criticized Russia for opposing UN Security Council action calling on Syria’s president to leave power.
Obama said Monday that despite past differences on Syria, he and Medvedev agreed they both support UN envoy Kofi Annan’s efforts to end the violence in Syria and move the country toward a “legitimate’’ government.