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Memo to President Obama: The microphones are very sensitive

If there are reporters in the room, you are in public

While in Seoul, Korea for various summit-like activities, President Obama was finishing up a 90-minute private conversation with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and the press was filing in. Obama, apparently believing that he could finish one last not-for-publication remark before the reporters were in earshot, underrated the power of the microphones those reporters carry. The exchange:

Obama: On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him [apparently Vladimir Putin] 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.

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This may have been a first-class gaffe. You don’t have to be too cynical to know that until November Obama must pass everything he says and does through a filter of political necessity; nor to believe that,  if he is still president in 2013, Obama will feel freer to be more “flexible” about things like what kind of deal he could make with Russia on missile defense.

On the other hand, the worst thing he can do now is to say this in front of reporters.

It didn’t take long for Mitt Romney to label the incident troubling and alarming. Here’s the quote via the Wash Post:

When the president of the United States is speaking with the leader of Russia, saying he can be more flexible after the election, that is an alarming and troubling development. This is no time for our president to be pulling his punches with the American people – and not telling us what he’s intending to do with regards to our missile defense system, with regards to our military might and with regards to our commitment to Israel and with regard to our absolute conviction that Iran must have a nuclear weapon.

A campaign spokester soon clarified that Romney meant to say that Iran must not have a nuclear weapon.

It seems a perfect counterpoint to the recent kerfuffle over Romney’s spokester saying that after he locks up the nomination, Romney can erase any inconvenient things he has said earlier this year like a child shaking his Etch-A-Sketch.

And, just as lame as Romney’s spokesters sounded trying to make that one go away, here’s how an unnamed senior administration official tried to explain Obama’s statement to ABC:

“This is a political year in which the Russians just had an election, we’re about to have a presidential and congressional elections — this is not the kind of year in which we’re going to resolve incredibly complicated issue like this. So there’s an advantage to pulling back and letting the technical experts work on this, as the president has been saying.”

Update: The following morning (which was last night, our time) Obama himself took a whack at explaining away the gaffe. First he jokingly asked if the mikes were on, then he offered this verbal tapdance:

“I want to reduce our nuclear stockpiles. And one of the barriers to doing that is building trust and cooperation around missile defense issues… And so this is not a matter of hiding the ball,” Obama said. “I’m on record….

“…I don’t think it’s any surprise that you can’t start that a few months before presidential and congressional elections in the United States, and at a time when they just completed elections in Russia, and they’re in the process of a presidential transition.”