Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
It seems as if the President continues to have trouble watching when microphones are on and when they are off. In a side conversation with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in November at the G-20 world economic summit, not knowing that there was a live mike, the two Presidents were overheard discussing their personal difficulties in dealing with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. In the course of their brief exchange Obama was overheard calling Netanyahu a liar.
Today, in a side meeting with outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Seoul at the global nuclear security summit, President Obama was again unaware that he was speaking before another “live” mike. While discussing North Korea’s planned long range missile rocket test and the U.S.-Russian missile defense system controversy, the President was overheard telling Medvedev to relay to the incoming Russian President Vladimir Putin that he should give Obama some “space” now, since he will have more “flexibility” after November.
There are two problems with these two incidents concerning the Obama presidency; one is operational and the second is substantive. Both of them are somewhat trivial, but they suggest more serious issues.
The President and his staff need to reorganize their minding of the President. One gaffe on an open mike is a mistake; two, are careless. Everyone assumes that even Heads of State let their guard down sometimes and schmooze with their fellow leaders as do any all people. Making small talk, albeit of international importance in some instances, can be very important. It is also frequently a moment for some frank, exchanges between leaders. The problem is that these moments are not constructive when they become available for public consumption and dissection.
As for the substantive implications of the President’s remarks, it is a known fact that the day after re-election, a President becomes a lame duck president, with all the political positives and negatives adhering to that role. Obama’s political flexibility is understood, but so would be his weakened ability to control or discipline even members of his own party. It is in foreign policy that Presidents usually keep the most power as so much authority adheres to the office of the President in this arena. The reference concerning flexibility concerning the Russian concerns with air defense system development is genuine.
In Jerusalem today, they undoubtedly heard this presidential quip with two different voices. Does it mean that President Obama will be able to assert U.S. power against Iran more aggressively after being re-elected or will he become more willing to tolerate a possible nuclear Iran?