By J. DAVID GOODMAN
President Obama found his private moment of political candor caught by a live microphone on Monday as he told President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia that he would have “more flexibility” to negotiate on the delicate issue of missile defense after the November election, which Mr. Obama apparently feels confident he will win.
Mr. Obama’s Republican adversaries seized on the comment, which followed a meeting between Mr. Obama and Mr. Medvedev in Seoul, South Korea, where both had struggled to find common ground amid strong objections in Russia to the American plans for a missile defense system based in Europe.
As a pool of television journalists gathered for a news conference on the leaders’ meeting, Mr. Obama leaned in to deliver private assurances to Mr. Medvedev. But speaking inadvertently into an open microphone, he offered a frank assessment of the difficulty of reaching a deal — on this or any other subject — in an election year.
“On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this can be solved, but it’s important for him to give me space,” Mr. Obama could be heard saying to Mr. Medvedev, according a reporter from ABC News, who was traveling with the president.
“Yeah, I understand,” the departing Russian president said. “I understand your message about space. Space for you … .”
Mr. Obama then elaborated in a portion of the exchange picked up by the cameras: “This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.”
“I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir,” Mr. Medvedev said, referring to Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, who just won an election to succeed Mr. Medvedev.
The unscripted remarks, which were broadcast by the television networks and raced around the Internet, seemed to suggest that Mr. Obama was not worried about getting re-elected.
The White House scrambled to clarify what both leaders meant.
“Since 2012 is an election year in both countries, with an election and leadership transition in Russia and an election in the United States, it is clearly not a year in which we are going to achieve a breakthrough,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser.
Mitt Romney, the leading Republican challenger to Mr. Obama, told an audience in San Diego that the president’s remarks were “an alarming and troubling development.” Newt Gingrich, who is trailing in delegates, also seized on Mr. Obama’s unguarded quote, telling CNN, “I’m curious: how many other countries has the president promised that he’d have a lot more flexibility the morning he doesn’t have to answer to the American people?”