By Amie Parnes and Jeremy Herb - 03/27/12 11:57 PM EDT
Republicans on Tuesday sought to turn President Obama’s private remarks to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev into a long-running talking point.
A day after a live microphone caught Obama asking Medvedev for “flexibility” on missile defense until after the November election, the president moved quickly to offer an explanation and contain a growing chorus of criticism.
But that didn’t satisfy his opponents, who continued to accuse Obama of compromising the U.S. international security agenda during an election year, crafting a storyline that Obama will go completely unchecked if he wins reelection in November.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill and in the presidential race alike blasted Obama, who got some perhaps unwelcome support from Medvedev.
After GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney criticized Obama’s remarks and called Russia the United States’ “No. 1 geopolitical foe,” Medvedev felt the need to chime in about Romney’s rebuke, implying that it was outdated.
“We live in 2012 and not in the mid-1970s,” Medvedev said.
“Regarding ideological clichés, every time this or that side uses phrases like ‘enemy No. 1,’ this always alarms me, this smells of Hollywood and certain times [in the past],” he said. “I would recommend all U.S. presidential candidates ... to do two things. First, when phrasing their position, one needs to use one’s head, one’s good reason, which would not do harm to a presidential candidate.”
Republicans quickly turned Medvedev’s defense of Obama against the president, with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) arguing the comments showed the Russian wanted Obama to defeat Romney in the fall.
The Republican National Committee responded by accusing Democrats of playing defense and using Medvedev as a campaign surrogate.
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum called Obama’s conversation with Medvedev “very disturbing” and said that the president is “willing to sacrifice American security, willing to sacrifice the security of our allies.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters that the president’s “hot mic” moment “reinforces a narrative that his reelection is having a lot of sway on foreign policy, which is unnerving.”
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) avoided criticizing Obama, saying it was “appropriate that people not be critical” of the sitting president when he is overseas.
But that didn’t stop the Speaker’s aides.
“Conflating America’s missile defense program and Russia’s nuclear weapons stock is an attempt to confuse, not clarify to the American people and our allies,” said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Boehner. “The president still has not explained what ‘flexibility’ on missile defense the
Russians could expect in a second term, and we hope when he returns home we’ll get a better explanation.”
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, defended Obama’s comments, saying that the president was merely conveying the reality of the U.S.-Russian relationship in an election year.
“It’s very difficult in an election year to talk about possible cooperation with the Russians, even though it’s in our own security, even though it would really help isolate Iran if we could work out something to share missile launch information,” Levin told The Hill. “It’s difficult to do it because there’s kind of an automatic Republican mischaracterization of it.”
Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, said Republicans are seizing a “moment of weakness” for Obama, using it to “undermine” his foreign-policy achievements.
But Zelizer added there was one big caveat to the GOP attacks: Few voters are likely to take the issue to the polls in November.
Russell Berman contributed