His eyes flashed anger when he spoke of guns and the children of Newtown. The tightness of his jaw registered frustration when he spoke of AIDS. His eyes widened, a sign of intensity, when talking about people learning English. His eyes blinked faster as he spoke of terrorism, a sign he was touching a raw nerve. And he smirked, one side of his mouth drawing up as he spoke of CEO salaries never being higher as wages for the poor and middle income have remained stagnant. “That was a flash of contempt,” she said.
Reiman is one of a rarified group of psychologists and anthropologists, like those at the Center for Nonverbal Studies in Spokane, Wash., who carefully track political leaders, not so much for what they say, but for what their body language conveys about what they believe. They analyze the 46 facial muscles capable of making 10,000 facial expressions, the twitch of the eyebrow, the sincerity of the smile, the jut of the chin and the hand gestures to determine when someone is telling the truth, fibbing or just saying things that they think people want to hear.
These are the experts who track sighs, eye rolling and eye blinks during campaign speeches and presidential debates to determine who is lying and who is anxious. (Typical human blinks per minute: 20. GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole in the 1996 presidential debates: 147. Former president Richard M. Nixon giving his resignation speech: “an eye blink storm” on a par with schizophrenics, according to Boston College psychology professor Joe Tecce.)
And what body language experts say Obama needed to do during his State of the Union address Tuesday night was not just to reach across the aisle and appeal to a divided Congress and country split along ideological lines to find a way forward together. He also needed to convince them — and television viewers — that he was not just a calm, cool, collected and cerebral thinker, but a warm, empathetic and, yes, even charismatic leader worthy of rallying behind.
“His job was to convince Congress that, in coming together, everybody wins,” Reiman said. “And he did. He came across as warm and convincing. He needed to be dominant and forceful without being aggressive.”
So how to do that, in body, not just in words?
Watch Obama talk about immigration reform, she said. He used what body language experts call “the politician’s point.” His thumb touched his index finger. His hand was closed in a soft fist and he waved it in short bursts. “That’s a great way to make your point, to show dominance without being overly aggressive,” she said.