Read a Pacific Northwest, liberal perspective on world, national, and local politics. From majestic Redmond, Washington - the Northwest Progressive Institute Advocate.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Barack, Body Language, and Besting McCain

I love to look at body language as a barometer of one-on-one dynamics. It comes from my background as a prosecutor. I have tried more than one hundred criminal cases, and tried to get a read on over 1,000 jurors. From the fall of 1990 through the summer of 2006, I taught trial advocacy to 400 or so law students and attorneys, either for the Washington State Bar Association or as an adjunct professor of law at Seattle University School of Law, and individual dynamics formed a significant part of the skills I tried to impart.

So while the pundits were busy listening to the recent debate between Senators Obama and McCain, I was busy watching the subtle nuances of their body language. I'll leave it to the experts as to who "won" the war of words, but Obama looked and acted the leader and decision-maker of the two.

Let's start with name calling. I am referring to how each spoke the other's actual name. It is natural for a person who is more confident, or in a position of authority, to address a subordinate by first name: "John, I think your policy is just plain wrong." It is also natural for the person who is less confident, or in a subordinate position, to address the superior by title: "Senator Obama, I think your policy is just plain wrong."

The difference is subtle. Both people have uttered the exact same phrase. But the relative positions are clearly marked. In terms of the debate, the "name calling" by the two candidates established that Barack Obama was in the driver's seat as far as holding the upper hand viz. respect.

The next area to look at is eye contact. McCain rarely looked over at Obama, while Obama alternated looking at Jim Lehrer and at McCain. If Obama wanted to call B.S., he looked McCain in the eye; if he wanted to make a general point or answer a question directly, he looked at Lehrer. That demonstrates an ability to direct attention where it will do the most good, something one would expect in a President. McCain, on the other hand, virtually never looked anywhere other than at Lehrer, which connotes lack of self-confidence and lack of confidence in his message.

Finally, when the debate ended, Obama shook McCain's right hand but also clasped McCain's right forearm with his (Obama's) left hand. As he did so, Obama said "Good job John". The hand clasp, speaking first, and using McCain's first name combine once again to establish Obama as the leader and McCain as one of the followers.

One could say, quite accurately, that Obama seemed arrogant or cocky. That is not necessarily a bad thing for a world leader. When my President walks into a room of world leaders, I want him* to be the one everyone else looks to for leadership.

So does this mean Obama won the election through this debate? Of course not. Body language and group dynamics are more art than science, and I doubt that Obama's advisors orchestrated those moves; it would have looked fake if they had. But it is consistent with Obama's campaign strategy in the primaries--take the spare votes where you can. I think that there will be some uncommitted voters who subconsciously have switched to Obama based on the debate; hopefully there will be enough and they will be in battleground states.

*If I were speaking of Hillary Clinton, it would be "her".

The upcoming VP debate

This Thursday's debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin should be a fascinating example of dynamics. Take everything I said above and throw it out the window; male-female debate dynamics are a whole new ballgame. I am looking forward to it, and will post my thoughts when it is over.


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