In a statement read out by his spokesman, Mr Duterte said his “strong comments” to certain questions by a reporter “elicited concern and distress, we also regret it came across as a personal attack on the US president”.
Mr Duterte made the remarks on Monday before flying to Laos, where he will attend a regional summit. He had been scheduled to meet Mr Obama separately, but that meeting was called off by the Obama administration.
“Clearly, he’s a colourful guy,” Mr Obama said. “What I’ve instructed my team to do is talk to their Philippine counterparts to find out is this in fact a time where we can have some constructive, productive conversations.”
National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said the meeting with Mr Duterte was off.
As Duterte arrived in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, for the Association of South-East Asian Nations summit on Monday evening, he was already rowing back on the remark, saying he did not want a fight.
“I do not want to quarrel with him. He’s the most powerful president of any country on the planet,” Mr Duterte said. Instead, he said, he was angry at members of the US state department who “keep on mouthing” statements about human rights.
Mr Duterte has been under intense global scrutiny over the more than 2,000 suspected drug dealers and users killed since he took office. Mr Obama had said he planned to raise the issue in his first meeting with Mr Duterte, but the Philippines leader insisted he was only listening to his own country’s people.
“You must be respectful,” Mr Duterte said of Mr Obama. “Do not just throw questions.” Using the Tagalog phrase for “son of a bitch”, he said: “Putang ina I will swear at you in that forum.”
He made the comment to reporters in Davao City. Eager to show he would not yield, Mr Obama said he would “undoubtedly” still bring up human rights and due process concerns “if and when” the two meet.
Duterte’s personal aides and the Philippine government often try retroactively to soften comments from the man who frequently insults world leaders and promises bloodbaths to achieve his aims.