SEOUL, South Korea — Speaking to reporters in Seoul, South Korea, President Barack Obama today tried to tamp down the furor he created a day earlier when he leaned over to Russian President Dimitry Medvedev and told him to wait until after the 2012 U.S. presidential election to push him on missile defense concessions.
The exact transcript of the accidentally recorded exchange, captured by a reporter's microphone, went this way:
President Obama: "On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space."
President Medvedev: "Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. Space for you "
President Obama: "This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility."
President Medvedev: "I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir."
Pundits and opponents quickly jumped on the gaffe, which Fox News commentator Charles Krauthammer compared to Mitt Romney's Etch-a-Sketch fiasco from the past week. Krauthammer translated the subtext as follows:
"'This is my last election.' That's his way of saying with a nod and a wink, 'Look, you guys have a free hand because you run a dictatorship, your elections are rigged. Well, ours aren't rigged, but once I get past my last election, I'm unleashed. I can do anything I want,'" Krauthammer said.
"And what he's saying is, 'You know that reset I began three years ago where I completely undermined our allies in Eastern Europe? I cancelled the missile defense system and I began a process in which our supremacy in missile defenses is now negotiable, which the Republicans have never allowed to be negotiable.'"
'Well, after election day, I can't speak about it now of course because it's my last election and Americans won't actually like that — after election day, I'll be open.'
In a CNN exchange with Wolf Blitzer, likely GOP nominee Mitt Romney slammed Obama for cozying up to Russia, saying that Russia was "without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe. They fight every cause for the world’s worst actors. The idea that he has more flexibility in mind for Russia is very very troubling indeed."
Pushed by Blitzer to clarify, Romney said that while other threats are more serious, any time the U.S. confronts one of these serious threats, we find Russia blocking our way.
"Russia continues to support Syria, supports Iran, has fought us with crippling sanctions we wanted to have the world put in place against Iran. Russia is not a friendly character on the world stage and for this president to be looking for greater flexibility where he doesn't have to answer to the American people in his relations with Russia is very, very troubling — very alarming. This is a president who is telling us one thing and is doing something else," Romney said in the live broadcast.
The President later tried to clarify his remarks. Speaking to reporters in Seoul, he said that "the only way I get this stuff done is if I’m consulting with the Pentagon, with Congress, if I’ve got bipartisan support and frankly, the current environment is not conducive to those kinds of thoughtful consultations. I think the stories you guys have been writing over the last 24 hours is pretty good evidence of that.”
White House Spokesman Jay Carney criticized Romney's harsh comments about Russia, saying “the relationship that president Obama has established with Russia when he pressed the reset button in 2009 has born a great deal of fruit, including Russia’s cooperation with China at the United Nations in sanctioning Iran, Russia’s cooperation and assistance to the United States on our Afghanistan mission in terms of trans-shipment issues,” according to ABC's Jake Tapper.
President Medvedev also got his cracks in at Romney's reaction, saying "Regarding ideological cliches, every time this or that side uses phrases like 'enemy No. 1', this always alarms me, this smells of Hollywood and certain times (of the past)," Reuters reports Medvedev as saying. Medvedev also suggested that Romney "look at his watch: We are in 2012 and not the mid-1970s."
Romney may not be the only one with a stopped watch, of course. Stalin revivalism has been all the rage in Russia for several years, and last May the movement announced plans to put up Stalin posters in the streets of Moscow to celebrate Victory day, only backing down under pressure. Textbooks also now tout the Soviet dictator's legacy, and a new metro station bears the prominent inscription “Stalin raised us to be loyal to the nation, inspired us to labor and great deeds."
If Romney is stuck in the 1970s, he may still be decades ahead of some in Medvedev's country.
Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at email@example.com.