Obama's open mic moment: How big a flub?

Obama's open mic incident happened on Monday when he told the Russian president that he would have 'more flexibility' in missile defense negotiations after the 2012 elections.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Obama's open mic moment: President Obama chats with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during a bilateral meeting at the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea, Monday.

President Obama’s open mic moment sure looks like a political flub. Attending the nuclear safety summit in Seoul, South Korea, and unaware that a nearby microphone was live, Mr. Obama on Monday told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have “more flexibility” in missile defense negotiations after the 2012 elections.

Then he patted Mr. Medvedev’s hand in a kind of “we’re all in this together” manner, and he sat back awaiting further proceedings, according to tape of the incident.

Wow. First of all, what’s with world leaders and microphone mischief? Can’t they all assume that every time they’re in public, every word is taped? Six years ago, a microphone at a Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, caught George W. Bush using an expletive to describe Hezbollah activity. Then there was the campaign appearance in 2000 in Illinois where a mike picked up Dick Cheney using an expletive to describe a New York Times reporter.

Of course, in the Bush and Cheney incidents, the mike picked up an expression of their real feelings. That’s what Republicans fear about Obama’s gaffe – that he’s just revealed his secret plan to impose his radical agenda on the United States after he tricks voters into giving him a second term.

Mitt Romney (can we call him the presumptive GOP nominee yet?) lit into Obama in that regard. At an appearance in San Diego he said, “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.”

The Republican National Committee has already weighed in with a Web video backing up Mr. Romney on this point.

“What else is on Obama’s agenda after the election that he isn’t telling us?” it concludes.

Well, Obama did himself no favors by admitting something that’s pretty obvious. Right now, he’s got no room to deal with Russia on this issue. After November, if he wins, he’ll be able to act without worry as to any policy’s effect on his reelection chances.

But our two kopecks' worth is this: We think Obama is just playing Medvedev along. There’s no evidence that second-term presidents revert to their imagined archetype, particularly when it comes to foreign policy. In his blog at Foreign Policy, Daniel Drezner makes this point well, noting that conservative Ronald Reagan’s second term was marked by arms control attempts, and Democrat Bill Clinton’s by forceful NATO military actions. Even Mr. Bush became markedly more dovish in his second term, according to Mr. Drezner.

“[R]ecent second-termers have not reverted to their ideological bliss point – if anything it’s been the reverse, they’ve tacked away from their starting point,” writes Drezner.

Plus, flexibility is one thing. Power is another. Yes, second-term presidents don’t have to worry about appeasing the masses, but neither does Congress treat them with the deference of first-termers. They won’t be at the top of the ticket again, and friend and foe alike very quickly begin to focus on who might run next time. We’ve said it before: Second terms are like slowly deflating balloons. Remember Iran-Contra?

Obama made this point in his own defense after the hot mic incident, though he didn’t put it so starkly.

“The only way I get this stuff done is if I’m consulting with the Pentagon, with Congress, if I’ve got bipartisan support. And frankly, the current environment is not conducive to those kinds of thoughtful considerations,” Obama told reporters at the nuclear summit. “This is not a matter of hiding the ball.”

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