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White House Misplays Open-Mic Flap

[Update: this piece has been updated since its original publication.]  President Obama’s off-the-cuff remark to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, picked up before a press conference by microphones that weren’t supposed to be on, was a brief candid glimpse into the mind of our president and the world of international politics. Here’s the exchange:

Obama: On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space.

Medvedev: Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. Space for you…

Obama: This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.

Medvedev: I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.

It wasn’t quite as newsworthy as Ronald Reagan’s famous remark about Russia, recorded by radio producers who were setting up for a planned speech, that was later leaked to the press: “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” But Team Obama has mishandled this situation.

Republicans have pounced on Obama’s remark, portraying it as an American president who wants to be overly accommodating to a foreign, slightly hostile government. Romney went on CNN yesterday, announcing that Russia is America’s “number one geopolitical foe.”

At this point, whatever the president’s post-November plans might be, Team Obama should have come out tough on Russia, reassuring the country that U.S. national interests were in safe hands and that the president wasn’t planning to give away the store. Instead, the White House press secretary announced “…it’s in the interest of the United States to work cooperatively with the Russians. And that’s what he’s going to do.” This makes it sound like Obama is indeed planning to make sweeping, politically unpalatable concessions to the Russians. The Romney camp must be thanking its lucky stars.

If Team Obama had instead come out with a hard line on Moscow, the Russians would most likely have understood; indeed, during his own presidential campaign, Putin came down very hard against the U.S. A similar strategy for Obama would have not have ruffled many feathers in Russia, and would have reduced the impact of the mike miscue as an issue.

That didn’t happen, and Team Obama has just made it significantly easier for the Republicans to run against Vladimir Putin and both his foreign and domestic policies.  In American politics, that is the winning side of the issue. A hard hitting editorial in the Washington Post drives the point home; President Obama has tied himself to a shaky anti-American regime and the mike gaffe was an indicator of things to come.

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  • Joel Ryan

    “It wasn’t quite as newsworthy as Ronald Reagan’s famous remark about Russia”. I think you should reexamine the logic you used tO come to the ” not as newsworthy” theory, i give to you that Reagan’s gaffe had more time in the media. Just because the media paid more attention to a story (see Britney Spears wardrobe malfunction) is not the same thing as an event being more consequential. I have come to expect better analysis than this from via meadia.

  • BillH

    Reagan’s remark: Mocking his critics.
    Obama’s remark: Groveling before the Kremlin.

    Not newsWORTHY? Please tell me you meant that today’s feckless MSM refuses to recognize the newsworthiness.

  • ak

    The WaPo editorial is right on all points while your piece is remarkably shallow. Time and again, Obama comes out on the side of the autocrats and US enemies (a lot of redundancy here), both substantively and symbolically — his refusal to support Iranian people vs. the mullahs, his groveling letter to the “Supreme Leader” of Iran, his “genuine friendship” with Erdogan of Turkey, the deep bow before the Saudi king, the warm embrace of Hugo Chavez, etc, etc… and now this, his 2nd time “hot mic malfunction” (the first one was trashing our ally prime-minister Netanyahu.)

    It’s only reasonable to assume is what we see is what it is. So it’s not just a matter of politics, clever phrasing, and damage control but of substance. The most charitable interpretation is that Obama still doesn’t know what he’s doing and seems incapable of learning from experience. Take, eg, Putin’s anti-American campaign — it’s not just an election time rhetoric but one of the few pillars of his claim to legitimacy (“US and NATO are still our worst enemies, and I’m the only man to protect Russia.”) Thus, Obama, if re-elected, can expect nothing of substance from Putin. On the contrary, it’s far more likely that, as Putin’s internal difficulties will continue to mount (and they will), he’ll become even more anti-US trying to portray his political opponents as US & NATO stooges. Not understanding this basic fact makes our president both foolish and weak.

  • John Barker

    I don’t think Obama needs to worry about what he will be doing in his second term.

  • Charles R. Williams

    It is one thing for Putin to understand that Obama is constricted in what he can do by electoral politics. It is another thing entirely for Obama to imply that concessions can be made once he is reelected. Negotiators often stall because they need “space”. But they don’t throw their cards on the table and beg for “space”. At a minimum, this is dumb.

  • beejeez

    Yes, Obama overheard telling a foreign official in March that election-year politics make it difficult to work out a deal is a scandal that may cost him the presidential election.

    Jeez. Is this your first rodeo, tenderfoot?

  • ak

    Just to add to my earlier post, another explanation for Obama’s “flap” is that he does understand that he won’t get anything from Putin, but doesn’t care.

    “Please make no trouble for me until I’m re-elected, and you’ll be rewarded.”

    Take your pick.

  • Corlyss

    Their behavior over this slip is perfectly consistent with how this administration has consistently responded to opposition: they doubled down. Because this president has a 1960s view of America as an outsized bully and what we need more than anything else is to be cut down to proportionate size, on par with all the other states from Russia to Burkina-Faso, he doesn’t care if his concessions get him any similar concessions from the nations whose favor he is courting. For him, it’s all about America recognizing that it is not only nothing special, but that it has unjustly dominated the post-war world way too long and at way too great an expense. He will continue to make consessions not to get concessions but to whittle away American dominance.

  • vanderleun

    “I have come to expect better analysis than this from via meadia.”

    Well, it is always hard to say since not everythingat Via Meadia is via Mead. Some of it comes in from, you know, kids.

  • Kris

    Count me among those whose eyebrows went up at the Reagan comparison.

    beejeez@6: Either Obama is planning on making unpopular concessions to Russia, or not. If he is, and he wants to keep this hidden from the American electorate, then he certainly deserves bashing by the GOP. If he’s just buying time, then given the way he did so, Putin/Medvedev may will see this as breaking a commitment, which will not do much to improve American-Russian relations.

  • Jim.


    You nailed it. What Medvedev “understood” from that exchange was probably that Obama was a weakling that Putin could eat for lunch.

    This was a diplomatic disaster on the level of Kennedy’s first meeting with Kruschev. We should brace ourselves — and prepare countermeasures — for Russian aggression against American interests.

    If we get out of this without another Cuban Missile Crisis, we should count ourselves lucky.

    Maybe Obama could atone for this by announcing that by the end of the decade we’d have a man on Mars. It’s hard to say what else could salvage his stature at this point.

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