Obama open mike flap hits Hill and campaign trail

President Obama’s unguarded comments to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have “more flexibility” to discuss missile defense after the November election continued to reverberate half a world away Tuesday, both in the halls of Congress and on the presidential campaign trail.

Speaking in Seoul, where he is wrapping up a three-day summit on nuclear security, Obama sought to clarify his remarks and make light of the moment.

“First of all, are the mikes on?” he joked.

He described missile defense as “extraordinarily complex, very technical” and said it would be virtually impossible to win broad consensus in Congress for any new major security agreements with Russia in an election year.

“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, and at a time when they just completed elections in Russia, and they’re in the process of a presidential transition where a new president is going to be coming in in a little less than two months. Frankly, the current environment is not conducive to those kinds of thoughtful consultations.”

The conversations on Capitol Hill, the campaign trail and even from Medvedev himself seemed to prove Obama’s point as political leaders pounced on the president’s initial comments and on one another.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who called Obama’s remarks “alarming” and “troubling” and labeled Russia the United States’ “number one geopolitical foe,” managed to get a double dose of criticism — from Medvedev and at least one party leader.

Medvedev said Romney’s comments were “very reminiscent of Hollywood and also of a certain phase of Russian-U.S. relations.”

“It’s 2012, not the mid-1970s, and whatever party he belongs to, he must take the existing realities into account,” he added.

The Romney campaign seemed to relish the dust-up with Medvedev, as it not only propelled the former Massachusetts governor into an debate with a world leader, but gave him a chance to talk about foreign policy, an area in which he has little expertise.

“President Medvedev’s comments about Governor Romney make it evident that the Kremlin would prefer to continue doing business with the current incumbent of the White House,” Lanhee Chen, Romney’s policy director, wrote in a statement to reporters. “Given how the ‘reset’ has worked out so far, it is not hard to understand why. In contrast to President Obama, Governor Romney is clear-eyed about the geopolitical challenges Russia poses.”

Rick Santorum, another GOP presidential hopeful, also weighed in, saying Obama “is comfortable endangering America and her allies.”

But the harsh election-year remarks drew a modest rebuke from an unlikely critic: House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

Boehner tried to invoke an old courtesy, the “at the water’s edge” rule, insisting that politicians at home should not criticize the president when he is abroad.

“While the president is overseas,” he said, “I think it’s appropriate that we not be critical of him or of our country.”

It was a hard idea to impose on Capitol Hill, and the president came under attack at a summit on nuclear and cyber security.

“This is not a little matter,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), noting that there has been a long debate over the placement of a missile defense system in Europe and that “the left has never favored missile defense.”

He said that the administration finally committed to building a new system, but that faced with Russian objections, “now it looks like the president’s saying, ‘We’re going to take care of those concerns, too. We’re not going to build the new system . . . and . . . ‘after the election, I’ll take care of it, Vladimir.’ ”

Earlier, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) had challenged Pentagon officials testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee to explain Obama’s remark.

“The question is: Do either of you want to comment?” Inhofe asked before a brief pause. “I didn’t think so.”

Nakamura reported from Seoul; Henderson reported from Washington. Staff writer Ellen Nakashima in Washington contributed to this report.

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