SEOUL — In their joint statement to reporters here, President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev spoke carefully about continuing discussions on the sensitive issues of European missile defense.
But in an unscripted moment picked up by camera crews, the American president was more blunt: Let me get reelected first, he said; then I’ll have a better chance of making something happen.
“On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved, but it’s important for him to give me space,” Obama can be heard telling Medvedev, apparently referring to incoming Russian president — and outgoing prime minister — Vladimir Putin.
“Yeah, I understand,” Medvedev replies, according to an account relayed by an ABC News producer, who said she viewed a recording of the discussion made by a Russian camera crew. “I understand your message about space. Space for you . . .”
“This is my last election,” Obama interjects. “After my election, I have more flexibility.”
Medvedev, who last week demanded written proof that Russia is not the intended target of U.S. missile defense efforts, responded agreeably.
“I understand,” he told the U.S. president. “I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”
The exchange provided a rare glimpse of a world leader speaking frankly about the political realities he faces at home.
Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney quickly criticized Obama for the remark, saying in a statement, “President Obama signaled that he’s going to cave to Russia on missile defense, but the American people have a right to know where else he plans to be ‘flexible’ in a second term.”
In a statement to reporters, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said that reaching an agreement with Russia on missile defense will “take time and technical work.” Because 2012 is an election year in both countries, he added, “it is clearly not a year in which we are going to achieve a breakthrough.”
Therefore, the two leaders agreed that “it was best to instruct our technical experts to do the work of better understanding our respective positions, providing space for continued discussions on missile defense cooperation going forward,” Rhodes said.
He reiterated that the administration is “committed to implementing our missile defense system, which we’ve repeatedly said is not aimed at Russia.”
This is not the first time an open microphone has caused problems for Obama. During his trip to the Group of 20 economic summit in France last year, Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy were overheard by foreign journalists talking about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“I can’t stand him. He’s a liar,” Sarkozy said, according to the French Web site Arret Sur Images, which broke the story.
“You’re tired of him; what about me?” Obama replied. “I have to deal with him every day.”
Wilgoren reported from Washington. Staff writer Felicia Sonmez in Washington contributed to this report.