Passive Obama Debate Performance 'a Case Study in What Not to Do'

A nonverbal communication expert says president's debate performance gave Romney an assist.

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The downcast eyes. The passive body language. The occasional scowl.

National polls show that Mitt Romney trounced Barack Obama at the first presidential debate Wednesday night, and the president's nonverbal communication might have had something to do with it.

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Erik Bucy, a professor at Texas Tech University's college of media and communication, says Obama's nonverbal communication "provided a case study in what not to do when attempting to convey leadership."

Bucy cites the president's eye gaze, which he says was too often downcast and averted from the camera. Obama's body language, tone of voice, and cadence of speech were "all too passive," he says. "[They] really failed to project a sense of dominance on the stage."

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This was a marked change from the way Obama looked when he first stepped on stage Wednesday night wearing a confident grin.

As Romney repeatedly hammered the president on his record, however, Obama began to rely on seemingly ineffective gestures: a passive head nod, and what Jeff Thompson, a nonverbal communication researcher in New York calls the "squishing" gesture.

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When Obama was talking about how we would reduce the federal budget, for example, Thompson notes that the president used the gesture to "squish" the imagined budget between his hands. Thompson says:

"Although this squishing started off strong and positive for him, it took a turn for the worse when he repeatedly went back to this gesture, which reduced its effectiveness. Even worse, he began using the squishing gesture when he was not talking about minimizing, reducing, or squishing. This creates an incongruence between his spoken words and nonverbal communication. The result, despite being often subconcious, can create confusion and contribute to a negative opinion with viewers."

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Another expert in nonverbal communication, Patrick Stewart, says Obama's communication wasn't all wrong. The assistant professor of political science at the University of Arkansas says both candidates were effective at connecting with members of their own party.

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Republicans, says Stewart, prefer candidates who respond to threats aggressively, including in their expressions - -through anger, disgust or contempt. "Romney did just that -- rarely smiling with his teeth or loosening his jaw. And his behavior was highly aggressive--leading those who think debates are a sporting event to think he 'won,' " Stewart says.

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The Arkansas professor says Democrats, on the other hand, prefer candidates who signal empathy or nurture through their expressions, by using smiles of amusement or a real "felt" smile.

Stewart argues that Obama "did a wonderful job" at regularly using these natural smiles. But he also acknowledges that appearing empathetic isn't always a good debate strategy--especially when matched with an aggressive opponent.

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  • Elizabeth Flock is a staff writer at U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or Facebook or reach her at eflock@usnews.com.