Posted by: Dr Martha Eddy | February 8, 2008

The Body Politics of Obama and Clinton – Are They Moving What They Speak?

The Body Politics of Obama and Clinton – Are They Moving What They Speak?

Martha Eddy – September 2007

I spent the month of August on Martha’s Vineyard this summer. I often do as my family has summered there for five generations – both in Oak Bluffs and Chilmark. This summer was different. Instead of the usual R & R of family outings at the beach, dancing at the Yard, and communing with friends I was talking and walking politics. Within days of my arrival I learned that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama would be on the island and speaking. My husband, Blake Middleton, encouraged me to go to these events with my movement analyst hat on.

As a movement analyst I use a system developed at LIMS in NYC and taught internationally. We look at where a person moves his or her body in space with attention to the personal style of the movement. That style is revealed by the effort they put into the movement and how they shift from one shape to another. An important feature of this observation process is the connection to meaning. What does every little movement mean? As it turns out, the same movement can mean different things to different people. However, there are some generalizations that do get made, especially within a shared cultural framework.

Here is what I saw, moving backward in time:

Barack ObamaAt the home of the Davenports on Martha’s Vineyard Tuesday August 28, 2007

Barack Obama shares his ideas with eloquence supported by a strong and well-modulated voice. Interestingly, his full body does not express this strength. Rather his body is in “constant flow;” seen in how he adjusts his position in small nuanced shifts of weight to direct attention towards the people with whom he is communicating. Obama’s language, dialect, intonation, lilts seem to express the varied cultural aspects of his personal history. As he makes these alterations of speech, he also alters his facing, taking in the eyes of people throughout the room. He is aware of cultural differences and able to adjust in his body language to different cultural styles. His ability to adjust, adapt, relate to is made obvious from a non-verbal analysis. However, the ability to carry through may be questioned from the perspective of what America is used to (white American males using American-influenced body language). This is not to say he doesn’t have the capacity to carry through but that in this American context his body movement does not exude the firm pressure that communicates strength that may be needed to stand behind his beliefs and follow-through to execution. Indeed Obama does exert force, however he does it in less familiar ways – with the use of strength in his hand gestures at key points, and most unexpected in a man, with a rarefied use of weight that can be described as delicate – firm but with gentleness. as he flows through his speech. Obama’s hand and arm gestures are strong; his on-going bodily state is flowing with delicate use of pressure.

Obama’s range of knowledge comes through loud and clear through what he says and how he says it verbally. His verbal eloquence is supported by the refinement of his gestures in the shapes that he makes – for instance his fingers are active in making a shape to corroborate a point – they cluster together (the tips of the fingers of one hand converge into a point) and then he projects forward toward the audience (“spoking” outwards from his body center) with a controlled firmness to emphasis the import of his statement. As he does this active “shaping” with his hands, he sometimes also “shapes” his whole body. More often he changes his shape using “shape flow.” Being in “shape flow” can signify a state of self-involvement, self-awareness or self-reflection. During his speech shape flow is visible in Obama’s relaxed torso that is visibly breathing. He is so relaxed that his hands settle into his pockets exuding the message that he is confident; perhaps translatable to being capable of the job. Furthermore he is moving his entire body – feet and lower torso constantly. All told, this is a complete “shape flow” state. As mentioned before he is also changing his facing throughout his talks. Interpretation? One view could be that while tuning in each part of the audience, and indeed with diverse cultural communities he also maintains the self-confidence of someone who has what he needs, being characteristic of a successful person complete with the ease, entitlement, perhaps arrogance, of a Harvard graduate (sum cum laude).

Obama’s gestures are in the small to middle portion of his kinesphere (the space around his body that you can reach without taking a step). I might ask him: “Why do you move in such a small space? Is this a cultural phenomenon from Kansas, Hawaii, Indonesia, Kenya? Or is there some lack of willingness to really extend fully out to your audiences, the world wide community?” He keeps his arms close to home; I never saw extensions out to the edges of his own physical boundary, “reach space.”

So, in summary Obama’s shifting, near range, strength and focus exist with an underlying ease and flow. He has lots of integrated movement (meaning gestural and postural movements connect to work together) and plenty of detail in his plans for America. However because of the constancy of his movement and his periods of non-stop speaking, this movement can be read as “flowing” or as “shifty.” An audience member might wonder – will he change his tune with each group he is dealing with? Or is he not yet sure which direction he’ll take?

During the Q & A, Obama pauses to answer questions, showing that this inquiry is worthy of thought. When the pauses occur frequently within a question the viewer may begin to wonder if perhaps this is a subject that he hasn’t experience with or the opportunity to think through fully. During his responses, especially about Israel, his flow spills over; he runs on both in speech and motion. This flow IS punctuated with pauses, as he makes a point. He appears to be complete, and then out of the silence and stillness, he moves and speaks again, adding more to his answer. This can be interpreted as a helpful quality – of perseverance and thoroughness, speaking until all angles have been addressed, really complete. Once or twice works, after that the pauses and thinking through can be interpreted as youthful and inexperienced.

More questions from watching his movement emerge: Where does his strength come from? What grounds him to hold strong to one point of view, to stand behind a decision?

He does bring his message back home, to himself – gesturing resolving at his chest, or face. With this we see he is able to wrap a key point up and accepts it himself. He’s content with his internal resources, and he trusts himself. When beyond his own means will he gather in the expertise of others? Upon leaving the event, I am not sure what he believes is most important: getting “fired up and ready to go” for some specific platforms, or being ready for change as it comes and being able to negotiate on the world stage. What speaks volumes is his interest in representing other, the disenfranchised, the Muslims who aren’t being heard, the policy makers who care about the environment. He can be the chameleon that can reach out to world leaders across class and race and nationality; a laudable quality in a world that is desperate for multiple and honorable points of view. Will he hold strong to the views that he espouses, shift easily to new policies in light of negotiation, or give over to different audiences?

Recommendation: In questions that require more time, and more expertise than he has at the tip of his tongue, Obama might share who he will turn to for more information. Without this information we might inquire: will he feel it is okay to nurture an excellent cabinet – to reach out for information and wise experience? Does Obama feel it’s okay to gain knowledge from others?

Movement Advice: Consider taking some stances and practice holding them strong, even with stillness and facing one direction for a while. With that solidity as a base he can use his natural flexibility in negotiating his detailed policies. On occasion he can reach out to explore possibilities and incorporate the knowledge of others. Do this by practicing stretching gestures out to be more inclusive.

Hillary Clinton at the Oak Bluff Tabernacle and at the home of the Biondi family in Edgartown Saturday August 25, 2007

Hillary Clinton spoke at the Tabernacle the prior Saturday. The headlines of the twice weekly paper that comes out on Tuesday (the morning of Obama’s evening talk) said Hillary Excites Audience with Stump Speech. I have to agree. Clinton was solid. She spoke with strength, clarity, passion and sharp intellect but she didn’t move me. However, later on Saturday evening she went on to speak again with an audience of 400 and a different aspect of her movement life emerged. At the Biondi’s home added to her savvyness she exhibited grace and exuded caring.

Here are some differences in the movement that Hillary delivered her message with during “the stump speech” at the Tabernacle and her talk at fundraiser at the Biondi’s.

At the Tabernacle (an open air wooden tent that seats 1000) she had key supporters seated behind her on the stage, hence she was essentially speaking in a theater in the round. In this setting her arms swept along a horizontal arc to include all in the room. Her arm gestures were large; supportive of big ideas. What was disturbing was that she lost energy in the arc as she reached the end – as if she was throwing her idea away (hoping someone else would catch it?) There was no precision at the end of the movement to conclude or contain it. It drifted off. This is in high contrast to what she said and how her voice carried. Like Obama’s free flowing shape flowing movements the throw-away quality of these frequent sweeping arm gestures appeared unconscious.

When delivering specific points within a platform she did punctuate her points, literally creating points from her fingers. For instance her left hand would rise to the left side of her chest region with her fingers gathered in the same five finger point Obama uses – dabbing at the space. Unlike Obama, these points had clear whole body strength behind them. Clinton is solid on her feet. She stands wide and hardly moves from that stance. This reads as “I am reliable, consistent, steady.” Occasionally she lightened her rather constant firm pressure, mostly through her hand gestures, however more often than not the hand gestures that began firmly became limp. The gestural actions can be interpreted as – I need a rest; this is too big for my energy to sustain; I have to give up a bit. Movement experts know that recuperation comes from periods of sleep, of course, but also from finding mini-rests throughout one’s endeavors. One of the healthiest sources of rest is oxygenation, finding “breath support.” This can be called core support. It relates to Obama’s shape flow.

When I saw Clinton speak in New York City in 2006 at the Children’s Defense Fund gala at Rockefeller Center she did exhibit moments of adjustment through her chest, subtle but visible. (Her gestures were not as grand, as if she’d been coached not to move too much but her upper torso was alive with variable emphasis.) At the Tabernacle she was quite still in her chest. This stillness could be thought to convey strength but actual is simply a lack of flexibility so also reads as rigidity. It can also be interpreted as superficial in that the movement is only coming from the arms, not from the heart. Many questions can be raised for the viewer from Clinton’s wide-sweeping gestures that fall off, punctuated points that become limp, and chest that holds rigid. She communicates being clearly determined and broadly aware of the needs of the world with a desire to share her ideas widely so all perceive their import. But is she humane or just a political manipulator? Is it difficult for her to let her torso breathe because she is a woman perhaps coached to not show any womanliness; or a woman who has been injured by numerous sectors of the American public? Do her gestures fall off because she is tired or because she expects someone else (her husband perhaps) to follow-through?

In high contrast, at the Biondi’s fund-raising party Clinton finished her sweeping horizontal arcs by returning her hands toward her body mid-line, once even ending with her palm on her heart. It was at that moment that her audience was visibly touched – either tear-streaked or applauding.

Recommendation: Allow some of the movement patterns that were visible at the Biondi party into other public speaking arenas.

Movement Advice: In order to make successful speech after successful speech it will help to allow deeper breath as well as gestures to and from the body center. Spread out to show the expansiveness of ideas but also periodically come back to herself to show caring and depth of connection. This is another way to heighten inclusiveness. By circling arms back in toward center it is less likely the audience will feel that ideas are dropping off into outer space. These moments that touch in toward center can also be resting moments of more internal focus where energy is gathered This personal sustainability is a powerful metaphor for global sustainability, it can be part of the democratic vision usefully modeled in our presidents whether male or female.

Background/Context: Getting into the party to hear Barack was much more challenging than hearing Hillary. Because the time on the Vineyard was meant to be his vacation he chose not to have a talk that would be affordable to most of the public. The word was out that it would cost the full $2300 which is the limit of a campaign gift. It did come down and get divided out into inside seating with the Senator if you paid full fare and $1000 if you just came for the group speech outside under the white tent. Hillary Clinton speech at the Tabernacle was open to anyone paying $50 AND others could sit out on the lawn to hear (and see a bit) for free. It was possible to also go to the Biondi party if you helped to raise $1000 by selling 20 tickets. This high contrast of opportunity was not received well by many Vineyardites. It took a lot of forgiving for some, especially since no press statement has been released explaining the whys of this contrast. I consorted with 4 friends to share an expensive $1000 ticket and we had to argue for this opportunity. We were thankful for it. In the case of Hillary I sold twenty $50 tickets in order to be able to also attend the private party, equalizing my view of each candidate, seeing them each within the context of supporters, giving quite “relaxed and intimate” speeches.

I missed John Edwards on the Vineyard. I hope to have the opportunity to meet him as the campaign season progresses. Of course if Al Gore jumps in I’d be delighted to view his movement performance too. It clearly has developed in a positive direction over the past 7 years.

Of course I have other questions too:

For Obama: If in his educational policy teachers will be paid deserving salaries and excellent professional development, what will be done to safeguard the needs of children to have a better teacher to student ratio? School reform research sees class size as a central issue too. Is there enough money for both in his view?

While Obama gave plenty of specifics in the domains of education, war, dealing with terrorism, and ….energy reform was stated but not outlined. What exactly is his alternative energy policy? And, why did he need to make a statement to the wives in the audience about deserving to be taken out to dinner by their husbands? Being raised in East Harlem I took it as a moment when he was grooving with the African-Americans within the audience; I personally found it awkward and a bit demeaning. From my perspective as a wife, all of the women were there to hear Obama and learn about a potential future for our country. Enough said.



Biography: Dr. is Martha Eddy Director of the Center for Kinesthetic Education (, an educational resource organization she founded in 2005. She is trained as a Certified Movement Analyst (CMA) with a doctorate in movement science education from Columbia University. She was formerly director and faculty member of the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies (LIMS) in NYC as well as being on the faculty of Teachers College. Now she is on the faculty of SUNY – Empire State College. Dr. Eddy’s interest and expertise in political movement analysis began while she was mentored by Dr. Martha Davis, piloting the application of her Movement Signature Analysis. During this training she practiced analyzing politicians movement using a combination of Laban Movement Analysis (LMA) and other elements of political movement analysis that Dr. Davis deemed to be important (batons, postural and gestural movement etc.). Dr. Eddy has since done periodic analyses of debates as a Senior Research Associate and Advisory Council member of LIMS.







  1. Dear Martha,
    Thank you for bringing these interesting observations and analysis!
    I would love to know a link to what you analised it from.Is it available on youtube? How can i find it?
    thank you and with love,

  2. Thanks for your inquiry. I was most fortunate to observe each candidate live at small events. This allowed me to observe from multiple vantage points and have full body views. It is interesting to consider these analysis points in light of their actions over the past 5 years.

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