An open mike on Monday caught President Obama asking Russian President Dmitri Medvedev for “space” on the U.S.-backed European missile defense system, a tense issue between the two countries.

“After my election,” Obama explained, “I have more flexibility.”

“I understand,” Medvedev said. “I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”

My first reaction: Just imagine how Vladimir must see this.

Obama, of course, isn’t Putin — he’s not rigging elections or controlling state-run media, for example. And it’s hardly unprecedented for an American leader to feel constrained by politics in an election year, even on an issue as low on voters’ minds as missile defense.

But when the president of the world’s leading democracy asks the boss of the world’s leading managed “democracy” to time international diplomacy according to an election calendar, he encourages Putin to believe that the difference between Russian democracy and those in the West is only the degree to which political elites manipulate their people, and that when Americans object to Russia’s slouch toward authoritarianism, the criticism is more about tearing down Russia than promoting principle. Perhaps Putin is determined to believe all this, regardless. One would nevertheless hope that America’s leaders would give the opposite impression to their Russian counterparts, when the mics are on and when they’re off.