Obama clarifies hot mic comment made to Russian president

President Obama, left, speaks with Russia's President Dmitriy Medvedev, right, during their bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit.
(Yekaterina Shtukina / AFP / Getty Images)

SEOUL -- President Obama pointed to an uncooperative Congress and hotly contested presidential election for his decision to put talks with Russian leaders over a missile program on hold, a rare instance of a president acknowledging domestic political limitations while on the international stage.

“The only way I get this stuff done is if I’m consulting with the Pentagon, with Congress, if I’ve got bipartisan support,” Obama told reporters from the Nuclear Security Summit on Tuesday, the last day of his three-day trip for the meeting. “And frankly, the current environment is not conducive to those kinds of thoughtful consultations.”

Obama was seeking to clarify a remark he made a day earlier while posing for cameras with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. Apparently unaware of how close reporters’ microphones were, Obama can be heard on footage of the meeting responding to a comment from Medvedev by saying he would have more “flexibility” after the election. A White House official quickly issued a statement saying Obama was referencing top-level negotiations over the defense missile system, a weapons program intended to protect Europe but strongly opposed by the Russians who believe it is aimed at them.

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes cited elections in both countries as the reasons why 2012 “is clearly not a year in which we are going to achieve a breakthrough.”

The “hot mic” incident quickly became an opening for Obama’s Republican critics, many of whom have long been skeptical of the president’s commitment to the missile defense program. Others pounced on the president for his apparent confidence about his chances for reelection.

Obama’s attempt to push back against the criticism was notable for the president’s open mingling of domestic politics and diplomacy while far from U.S. shores.

Obama took care to emphasize that he believed there was no time for a deal, given the complicated and “painstaking” process of negotiating on a point of considerable friction between the two countries. But he zeroed in quickly on the politics at home, returning to themes that are driving his reelection effort -- his fights against an intractable Congress and a bitter political climate in Washington.

“I don’t think it’s any surprise that you can’t start that a few months before presidential and congressional elections in the United States,” Obama said, noting that Russia had recently held elections and was going through a political transition.

As he wrapped up work at the summit, Obama’s remarks threatened to step on the main purpose of the trip, to discuss his initiative to lock down nuclear material. Obama was asked about it as he announced progress on an effort to clean up and remove nuclear material from a former testing ground in Kazakhstan, the former Semipalatinsk Test Site. As he discussed his political challenges, Medvedev and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev stood by listening, although it was unclear how much they understood.

The president appeared primed for the question. He opened his remarks with a joke: “First of all, are the mics on?”