President Obama went to South Korea to talk about nuclear security, only to find that the presidential campaign followed him there.
Obama is now facing sharp criticism from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and other GOP figures following comments he made Monday, in seeming confidence, to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
As reporters gathered for a news conference in Seoul, South Korea, Obama leaned over to his Russian counterpart. Without realizing a microphone was open, he said:
"This is my last election and after my last election I have more flexibility," the president said, referring to his ability to reach a deal with Russia on missile defense.
Medvedev replied: "I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir," a reference to the incoming Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
The American plan to build an anti-missile shield in Europe is a major point of contention between the U.S. and Russia. The Obama administration insists the system is intended to intercept missiles from so-called rogue states like Iran. Russia sees missile defense as a threat to its nuclear arsenal.
Republicans Pounce On Obama's Remarks
Within hours of Obama's remark, the Republican National Committee released a video. It included ominous music and a clip from Fox News correspondent Ed Henry.
"If all of a sudden the president is suggesting he'll have more flexibility after the election, does that suggest he'll be giving up more to Russia? That is going to be the question he is going to face after a comment like this," Henry said.
Romney said it was alarming that Obama was "looking for greater flexibility where he doesn't have to answer to the American people in his relations with Russia."
Romney went on to describe Russia as "without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe. They fight every cause for the world's worst actor. The idea that he has more flexibility in mind for Russia is very, very troubling indeed."
Obama tried to put out the fire Tuesday, addressing reporters in Seoul with a joke: "First of all, are the mics on?"
He went on to say that arms control negotiations are extremely complex and require bipartisan cooperation in the U.S.
"I don't think it's any surprise that you can't start that a few months before a presidential and congressional elections in the United States," he added.
Mededev Hits Back At Romney
Medvedev, meantime, responded to Romney's description of Russia as America's No. 1 geopolitical foe.
Medvedev didn't name Romney but said statements coming out of the U.S. election campaign "smelled of Hollywood." He said this is 2012, not the Cold War of the mid-1970s.
The chairman of the Russian Parliament's foreign affairs committee, Alexei Pushkov, was even harsher.
He said Romney's comments reflected those circles that wished to impose U.S. hegemony on the world and see Russia as their main obstacle. Russia's Foreign Ministry was more measured, saying that "we see the Romney comment in the context of a political campaign. We will judge the U.S. partnership by actions, not words."
Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, saw a bright side in Romney's dark assessment of Russia.
"In a way, what Romney is saying makes Russia feel better," he said. "Because one of the concerns and one of the bad feelings is that Americans just ignore us. They don't count us as something serious anymore."
Lukyanov said it's nice to know that Russia still matters.