SEOUL — A defensive President Obama said Tuesday that he wasn’t guilty of “hiding the ball” when an open microphone caught him pleading with the president of Russia to delay missile-shield talks until after this year’s U.S. elections.
Mr. Obama was responding to a stateside political furor Monday, though his remarks Tuesday did not quell Republicans’ specific criticism that he is waiting until he is politically invulnerable to sell out U.S. interests to the Kremlin.
“The only way I get this stuff done is if I’m consulting with the Pentagon, with Congress, if I’ve got bipartisan support and, frankly, the current environment is not conducive to those kinds of thoughtful consultations,” Mr. Obama told reporters at a nuclear security summit here. “This is not a matter of hiding the ball.”
A day earlier, Mr. Obama was caught on tape telling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he needed “space” this year to put his re-election campaign behind him before taking up missile-defense negotiations with the Russians.
“After my election, I have more flexibility,” he told Mr. Medvedev, unaware that their conversation was being recorded by a journalist.
Republicans in Washington reacted angrily Monday, accusing Mr. Obama of hiding his true intentions and fearing that he might give in to Russian demands after the elections. GOP presidential candidates, foreign policy mavens and political strategists focused on what the episode may say about Mr. Obama’s candor and trustworthiness.
“This isn’t about politics. This is about the president’s real agenda,” presidential hopeful Rick Santorum said while campaigning Tuesday in Beaver Dam, Wis. “The president’s real agenda is to withdraw, to allow — whether it’s the Russians or the Chinese or whoever it is, the Iranians — let them have their run of the table because America’s no longer in the business of protecting ourselves and our allies.”
In an opinion piece at Fox News, Karl Rove, who was President Bush’s top political adviser and the architect of his 2004 re-election bid, said Mr. Obama’s words “go beyond foreign affairs” and could hurt his chances in November.
“Mr. Obama’s private turned public remarks [may] confirm doubts that he’s not shooting straight with the American people. It may also contribute to a belief that he holds voters in thinly disguised contempt. Is Mr. Obama also concealing unpopular domestic policies he’ll spring on the country in a second term?” Mr. Rove said. “What the president calls ‘flexibility’ with Russian autocrats, American voters will likely view as a lack of candor with them.”
One outlier in the political wrangling Tuesday was House Speaker John Boehner. The Ohio Republican declined an invitation from reporters to comment on the president’s remarks.
“While the president is overseas,” Mr. Boehner said, “I think it´s appropriate that we not be critical of him or of our country.”
The episode overshadowed the nuclear summit, a conference of 54 heads of state and government that wrapped up Tuesday. Clearly eager to put the controversy to rest before leaving South Korea on Tuesday night, Mr. Obama jumped at the chance when a reporter asked him to clarify his comments. He began by asking reporters, “Are the mics on?
“What I said yesterday — is something that I think everyone in this room understands,” the president said. “Arms control is extraordinarily complex, very technical, and the only way it gets done is if you can consult and build a strong understanding, both between countries and within countries.”