Body Language Experts Say Obama Exuded Dominance and Empathy

February 13, 2013

President Obama swallowed hard after he averred that protections for consumers, health-care patients and homeowners are stronger than ever before. A sure sign, body language expert Tonya Reiman said, that he wasn’t sure he believed what he was saying.

But when the president urged Republicans and Democrats to work together to reduce the deficit, he gesticulated emphatically with both hands directly in front of him, progressively moving them closer to his center. Reiman said that meant he really did believe. “If the hands go outward,” she said, “it’s a sign that people are lying.”

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.)

The highlights from President Obama’s first State of the Union address of his second term. (The Washington Post)

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.

But when the cameras cut to Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), Obama’s opponent in 2008 whom he had just praised for working in a bipartisan manner to find market-based solutions to climate change, Reiman sucked in a deep breath.

“Oh, look, McCain is really agitated. He did not like being mentioned.”

But wasn’t McCain smiling?

“Yes, but you had to watch his eyebrows,” she said. “The eyebrows went down first, which is annoyance. Our immediate facial expressions usually show our real emotions. But then, when we realize it, we often cover up that emotion quickly. And we usually cover it up with a smile. The first expression is real. The second is the coverup.”

Reiman watched carefully and noted that, on every point — from bringing troops home from Afghanistan to gun control to admonishing lawmakers to stop the brinksmanship with sequestration — Obama kept his palms parallel or down. And that’s critical. For a country that tends to elect its leaders because they are tall, or because they look good, keeping the palms down shows you mean business and you are not someone to be messed with.

“When the palms are up, that’s a sign of weakness,” she said.

Obama jutted his chin up and out, she said, usually a sign of arrogance. “But that’s just the way Obama carries himself. That’s his baseline,” she said. And within the space of the first 15 minutes of the speech, he began to thrust his left elbow out repeatedly.

“Flaring your elbow is a power move. You’re trying to take up more space so you’ll come across as powerful. It’s like puffing out your chest. It tells people, ‘Hey, I’m bigger than you think I am,’ ” she said. “He does it so often, that when you watch his speeches in fast-forward, it looks really bizarre, like he’s doing the funky chicken.”

And what of Vice President Biden’s squinty eyes? And House Speaker John A. Boehner’s sour expression. And wait, was he sucking his teeth?

“Well, Biden was rubbing his eyes, so that may not mean anything other than he had something in his eyes. It looked like he had double pink eye,” Reiman said. “But Boehner’s facial expressions and smirks registered disgust and contempt. It was just the worst. You could see Obama try to counteract that at the end with a kind of tug-of-war handshake.”

A sign, perhaps, she said, of things to come.

Brigid Schulte writes about work-life issues and poverty, seeking to understand what it takes to live The Good Life across race, class and gender.
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