It’s the Obama Touch — the squeeze on the biceps, the pat on the shoulder or the tap on the back that signals the displeasure of the commander in chief. Let others turn on the deep freeze or lose their cool when they’re annoyed. Obama prefers to deal with problems by taking them in hand — literally.
Just ask Vice President Joe Biden, who made a joke about Chief Justice John Roberts flubbing the oath of office last week and immediately felt his boss’s disapproval, in the form of Obama’s fingers on his back.
“[Obama] was castigating him. There’s no other way to put it,” says Joe Navarro, a former FBI special agent specializing in nonverbal communication. “Biden got it immediately,” he adds. “It looked like a little, subtle touch, but you could immediately see that Vice President Biden was contrite after that.”
In Biden’s case, Obama’s touch was itself a message, but in other cases, the Touch serves to underscore a spoken point — as reporters both on and off the campaign trail have learned.
During his visit to the White House press room last week, Obama responded to a Politico reporter’s unwanted question with a verbal rebuke — and a series of shoulder pats so emphatic as to be audible.
“We use touch to create effective communications, so if you’re not getting the message through my words, this is how we can establish better communication, with that touch,” explains Navarro.
Although Obama was clearly annoyed, Navarro adds, the gesture was conciliatory, rather than aggressive. “You didn’t see a closed fist or a pointed finger,” he says. “It was what we call full palmartouch.”
A scribe who personally received a hand-on-shoulder talking-to from the then-senator on the campaign trail says that the message was mixed. He says he knew Obama was irritated but that the Touch felt “confidential” and that he also had the sense that Obama was trying to connect with him.
The contact, he said, “seemed to have a twofold purpose — to express his annoyance and also to convince you that you were wrong.”
Another member of the press, who witnessed a similar moment with a colleague during the campaign, recalls thinking the gesture seemed intended to regain control over the conversation — friendly on the surface but also a little intimidating.
This dual experience is no accident; in sensitive situations, Obama typically uses touch to control and console simultaneously. An extreme example of this arose in June of last year, when Obama was approached in Philadelphia by an aggressive fan who wanted a photo with the candidate.
The man came close enough to pose a physical threat, and yet instead of backing away or pushing past him, Obama paused to grasp the man’s arm as he explained that he couldn’t stop for a picture.
“That was a way of placating, making him feel that ‘I’m here, I’m listening to you,’” says Maxine Lucille Fiel, a behavioral analyst and body language expert.
Navarro agrees, adding that the Touch is part of a larger skill set. “We establish empathetic channels of communication through touch. Very good social people will often touch on the shoulder, touch on the arm. It releases the chemical oxytocin. If you touch people, they perceive you as friendlier. Studies have shown that if a waiter or waitress touches you, they get a bigger tip.”
Obama, of course, is a fairly hands-on president in general, a frequent employer of the handshake-plus-upper-arm-grab and the friendly hand-on-back. He is less physical than the notorious LBJ, perhaps, but more so than his predecessor, who himself wound up under Obama’s guiding hand when the soon-to-be first couple came to visit the White House in November.
The move ankled some who saw it as usurping President Bush’s authority, yet the impulse was not atypical: Indeed, Obama himself recalls in “The Audacity of Hope” that he realized only after the fact that he had probably unnerved the Secret Service, and some of his colleagues, by unconsciously putting his arm around Bush during a White House gathering for new senators in 2005.
Obama’s admonishing touch can be almost as nuanced as his oratory. Take for example his infamous meeting with Joe “the Plumber” Wurzelbacher in Toledo, Ohio, last year. Joe got a friendly, encouraging slap on the side of the shoulder from Obama as he began to ask whether his company would have to pay higher taxes under Obama’s plan. But when Joe tried to interrupt Obama’s lengthy response, Obama subdued him with a gentle pat on the top of the shoulder, explaining, “I just want to answer your question.” The gesture read, “Please don’t interrupt me,” but it also said, “Hear me out, friend.”
Sometimes, however, the meaning of the Touch is not subtle at all. After Lieberman implied that Obama was soft on Iran last June, the two men met on the Senate floor later that day, and Obama greeted Lieberman with a pat on the shoulder and a handshake. But instead of letting go, Obama held on to Lieberman’s hand — and pulled him off to a corner to continue the discussion.
Their subsequent conversation was reportedly lengthy and animated — but if they failed to resolve their differences, Obama will surely be in touch.