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At Tonight's Debate, Obama Needs to Get a Grip

Watch the president's thumb and index finger. They speak volumes.
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If the first presidential debate was any indication, the candidates' body language will be analyzed as closely as their policy declarations during tonight's rematch. But what, specifically, should we look for to determine if they're on their game?

Anthropologists Michael Lempert of the University of Michigan and Michael Silverstein of University of Chicago, who co-authored the new book Creatures of Politics: Media, Message and the American Presidency, have a very specific idea.

According to a University of Michigan press release, "Lempert has spent hundreds of hours analyzing candidate gestures, including one that President Obama often uses: a precision-grip gesture, pressing his thumb and tip of index finger together to indicate that he is communicating the fine points of a topic he knows a lot about."

Lempert reports that in his first debate with Republican challenger Mitt Romney, Obama seldom used this "precision grip;" it was featured in only about 1 percent of his manual gestures. That compares to an average of 14 percent in his more-effective 2007 and 2008 debates.

So pay attention to the president's thumb and forefinger: If he's pressing them together, it suggests he's on solid footing in making a point. That presumably means he's more likely to speak with the authority and confidence that was largely missing from the first debate--a problem Silverstein summed up with an inevitable pun.

"Last time around," he said, "it looks like Obama lost his grip. Soon, we'll see if he's got it back."