SEOUL, South Korea -- President Barack Obama told Russia's leader yesterday 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 re-elected 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," an apparent reference to incoming President Vladimir Putin.
Obama and Medvedev did not intend for their comments, made during a meeting in Seoul, 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 long-standing differences over the contentious issue of missile defense.
Obama's candid remarks reflected 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, although Obama's remarks suggested he feels good about his re-election prospects.
Mitt Romney 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 and with regards to our absolute conviction that Iran must have a nuclear weapon," Romney said.