Obama gives GOP 'flexibility' ammo

Republicans used an unscripted remark by President Obama on Monday to label him as someone who could easily change his positions if he wins reelection.

In doing so, they sought to turn the tables on the White House, which had pounced on comments an aide to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney made about the general election being akin to an Etch A Sketch toy.

At a nuclear summit in Seoul, South Korea, Obama suggested in a one-on-one conversation with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev — which was picked up by a live microphone — that he could be more “flexible” on the divisive issue of missile defense after the 2012 election.

Obama also asked Medvedev for “space” so that the leaders could try to resolve the contentious issue after Obama’s election in November.

“This is my last election,” Obama told Medvedev during the two-day nuclear summit. “After my election I have more flexibility.”

The remark — made overnight while many Americans were sleeping — unleashed a firestorm Monday morning from Republicans, who accused Obama of undermining the U.S. international security agenda during an election year.

Suggestions that Romney is a centrist running as a conservative in the GOP primary have dogged the front-runner since the beginning of the race, and Republicans appeared eager to highlight Obama’s apparent willingness to shift his position on an issue once the presidential election is settled.

Hours after Obama made the comment, the Republican National Committee was quick to pounce with a new video called “After the Election,” questioning the president’s motives. “What else is on Obama’s agenda after the election that he isn’t telling you?” the video asks.

Romney said in a statement, “The American people have a right to know where else he plans to be ‘flexible’ in a second term.

“Russia is not a friendly character on the world stage,” Romney said. “This is a president who is telling us one thing and doing something else.”

Obama’s one-time rival, Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainSenate's defense authorization would set cyber doctrine Senate Dems hold floor talk-a-thon against latest ObamaCare repeal bill Overnight Defense: Senate passes 0B defense bill | 3,000 US troops heading to Afghanistan | Two more Navy officials fired over ship collisions MORE (R-Ariz.), took to Twitter to call Obama “a real Etch A Sketch leader.” House Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerSpeculation mounts, but Ryan’s job seen as safe Boehner warns Trump: Don't pull out of Korea-US trade deal GOP Rep: Ryan wasting taxpayers dollars by blocking war authorization debate MORE (R-Ohio) likewise weighed in on the social network: “When the president returns from S. Korea, we look forward to hearing what he meant by having ‘more flexibility’ on missile defense.”

Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), the chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee that handles nuclear issues, took matters a step further, firing off a letter to Obama on Monday demanding an “urgent explanation” for the remarks.

“This is outrageous,” Turner told The Hill in an interview. “The president is referencing a secret deal with the Russians to weaken our national security that he admits would not be able to stand the scrutiny of the United States electorate.

“This pulls the curtain back and gives transparency to an administration that is actively negotiating to weaken the United States,” Turner added. “And I think [it] applies to so many things that this president looks to do in his second term. He sees once he’s past the election he’ll be unfettered in some of his goals.”

It’s unclear if Obama will explain his remarks in the coming days. But after Obama’s “hot mic” moment, the White House quickly went on defense to clarify the president’s meaning.

Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said in a statement that the United States is “committed to implementing our missile defense system, which we’ve said is not aimed at Russia.” 

“However, given the longstanding difference between the U.S. and Russia on this issue, it will take time and technical work before we can try to reach an agreement,” Rhodes said. “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.”

The U.S.-led missile shield has long been a sensitive issue between Russia and the United States. In November, Medvedev threatened to withdraw from the New START nuclear treaty over the shield, and Russia has demanded a legal agreement that the shield will not be aimed at Russia.

Medvedev said last week, ahead of his meeting with Obama, that time was running out for the United States to win Russia’s cooperation on the missile shield.

Rhodes said both Obama and Medvedev agreed that it was “best to instruct our technical experts to do the work of better understanding our respective positions, providing space for continued discussions on missile defense cooperation going forward.”

While Obama’s comments might have reverberated through the political world, those who follow U.S.-Russia relations weren’t entirely surprised, given that it’s a hot-button issue with strong constituencies on either side.

“[Obama] was saying what those of us following the missile defense issue believed was what was likely to be the administration’s expectations,” said Andrew Kuchins, the director of Russia Eurasia programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s not surprising.”

But Kuchins added that much remains to be seen in terms of how the election plays out and “just how unconstrained President Obama is going to be.”

“That remains a question mark,” he said.

Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said the issue of missile defense won’t mobilize voters by itself, but Obama’s comment could be part of a larger attack on the president’s record as commander in chief. 

“The average American voter does not immediately understand why this kind of comment would be important or matter to their lives,” Eaglen said. “But if GOP members can weave this into a larger narrative about the president giving more to our allies than we’re getting in return, it could stay a storyline through the election.”