President Obama assured Russian President Dmitry Medvedev Monday that he'd have "more flexibility" after the November election, during a conversation that appeared to focus on the touchy issue of missile defense.
Obama, during a sit-down with Medvedev in Seoul, urged Moscow to give him "space" until after November. The conversation was relayed by a TV pool producer who listened to the recording from a Russian journalist.
"This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility," Obama told Medvedev.
Obama appeared to be asking Medvedev to relay this point to Vladimir Putin, who recently won election to return to the Russian presidency.
"On all these issues, but particularly missile defense ... this can be solved but it's important for him to give me space," Obama said.
Medvedev told the president he understood the "message about space. Space for you ..."
After Obama noted he'd have more flexibility in the future, Medvedev told him: "I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir."
After the conversation was widely reported, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney said the comments were "alarming and troubling."
U.S.-backed plans for a missile defense shield in Europe have been a sensitive subject in Russia, and one that Putin exploited during his presidential campaign.
The White House, though, downplayed the conversation between Obama and Medvedev.
Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said the U.S. is "committed" to implementing the missile defense system, "which we've repeatedly 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," he said in a statement.
"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. Therefore, President Obama and President 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."