A new video from American Crossroads doesn’t contain any facts we can check, but it has two things we don't see very often in political ads: the president of the United States as a secret agent and Vladimir Putin without a shirt. So we thought it deserved a little scrutiny.
The ad, from a Republican group that includes Karl Rove, is a riff on President Barack Obama’s hot mic comment to outgoing Russian President Dmitri Medvedev during a meeting in South Korea last month:
A bell gongs in the distance. A man’s voice bellows out in a foreign tongue. Thousands of Russian soldiers stand at attention, the Kremlin towering in the sky behind them.
Cue the James Bond theme music. "In a world where one man cannot lose," the narrator says in a breathy baritone, "the fate of the world rests in one top-secret mission."
The man is Putin, the Russian president-elect. We see images of him, of Obama, of nuclear warheads. Then Obama's words -- never meant for our ears -- flash onscreen: "After my election I have more flexibility." He’s hunched over, whispering intimately to Medvedev who says he understands. "I transmit this information to Vladimir, and I stand with you," Medvedev says as the two share a handshake.
Obama’s mission is simple, another narrator says: win one last election to gain unchecked flexibility, weaken our defenses and fundamentally transform the world.
Aha! There’s the ad’s actual message: that Obama is not being very Bond-like, he’s buckling at the knees against the Russians and will leave the U.S. vulnerable on the geopolitical stage.
The evil plot stars Obama as "President Flexible," Medvedev as "Dr. Transmitkov" (wearing eye patch, kitten on shoulder) and Putin as himself -- at least the version of himself that might grace the cover of a Harlequin paperback.
But enough description. This ad is a feast for the eyes. You simply must watch it yourself.
So what actually happened?
Obama was on a visit to Seoul, South Korea, to meet with Medvedev and discuss the contentious issue of a missile defense program intended to protect Europe but vehemently opposed by the Russians who believe it is aimed at them. Prior to a press conference, the two leaders huddled for a private chat, unaware that reporters’ microphones were close by and hot.
"On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this can be solved, but it's important for him [Putin] to give me space," Obama said.
He added, "This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility."
Medvedev replied, "I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir, and I stand with you."
The White House immediately launched into damage control mode, issuing a statement saying that Obama was referring to top-level negotiations over the defense missile system, according to the L.A. Times.
In an address to reporters the same day, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes acknowledged the gaffe.
"Well, I think we -- look, we acknowledge the fact that they too, the Russians, are going through a transition from the Medvedev government to the Putin government, just as we're going to be undergoing an election year here in the United States. However, I think their point was that that shouldn’t disrupt work that can be done at the technical level to build confidence, to gain understanding over a period of time so that we can continue to pursue some type of agreement on this in the future."
Obama responded to a question about the incident a day later, blaming the partisan gridlock in Washington for making diplomacy more difficult.
"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 consultations. I think the stories you guys have been writing over the last 24 hours is pretty good evidence of that."
Reporter Kathleen Hennessey, in her story for the L.A. Times, included this observation:
"The president appeared primed for the question. He opened his remarks with a joke: First of all, are the mics on?’"
American Crossroads, "Operation Hot Mic"
Los Angeles Times, "Obama clarifies hot mic comment made to Russian president," March 27, 2012
ABC News, "White House Dings Romney for Saying Russia is America’s ‘Number One Geopolitical Foe,’" March 27, 2012
WhiteHouse.gov, "Readout by Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes on President Obama and President Medvedev's Bilateral Meeting," March 26, 2012
Associated Press, "Obama on hot mic: ‘After my election, I have more flexibility,’" March 26,2012