Washington: Barack Obama goes airborne in big bear hug with a pizza man in Florida. Joe Biden cosies up with a biker in Ohio. Paul Ryan encircles a campaign supporter in North Carolina in a double-armed embrace. Even the more reserved Mitt Romney seems to be loosening up some with people he meets on the campaign trail.
Kissing babies and slapping backs are so yesterday.
The 2012 candidates are putting their all into the campaign cliche of pressing the flesh.
“America’s become more touchy-feely,” says Lillian Glass, a body language expert based in Los Angeles. “That’s what they want in their candidates, and that’s what they’re getting.”
When 74-year-old Jan Queen locked on to Biden for a hug and kiss in Jackson, Ohio, on Saturday, she didn’t budge for a minute or so.
“I told him he was so handsome, so good-looking, that I was not going to let go of him,” Queen reported afterward.
“Will you write a note to my wife and tell her that?” Biden asked with a grin.
It was just another friendly campaign schmooze for Biden, the most natural people person among the four top candidates.
But the vice-president raised eyebrows on Sunday when he buddied up next to a bandana-and-leather-clad female biker at a diner in Seaman, Ohio. In photos of the encounter, it almost looks as if the woman is sitting on Biden’s lap, but her chair was just pulled up close to the vice president, who leaned in behind her and put both hands on her shoulders.
The photo and accompanying stories soon went viral as the public and campaign partisans dissected the propriety of the pose.
Plenty of people also were taken aback by images of Obama being hoisted well off the floor when 46-year-old Scott Van Duzer enfolded him in a chest-to-chest bear hug on Sunday.
Obama had stopped in at Van Duzer’s pizza place in Fort Pierce, Florida, during a weekend bus trip across the state, and spoke admiringly of the owner’s big “guns”. It was a reference to the impressive arm muscles on the 6-foot-3 restaurateur, who decided to demonstrate what he — or they — could do by powerlifting the president.
Van Duzer, a Republican, said he voted for Obama in 2008 and will vote for him again this November, adding, “I do feel extremely comfortable with him.”
And that’s what all this touching and feeling is about — making voters comfortable with the candidates.
The candidates are “going after personal likability,” says Glass. “We love genuineness in our politicians, we love that warmth, and we love somebody that we can relate to.”
Politicians have always tried to connect with voters. Kissing babies has long been a campaign requirement. People like to see passion in their candidates.
Al Gore’s long smooch with wife Tipper after his nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2000 caused some people to look at him in a new light.
Romney, for his part, delivered a more standard bye-honey-see-you-tonight kiss on his wife’s lips on his convention stage this year.
But he does seem more at ease now than back in the primaries, when he rather awkwardly pretended that a waitress at a New Hampshire diner had poked him.
Gerald Shuster, a professor of political communication at the University of Pittsburgh, says the GOP nominee seems more spontaneous in his recent interactions with voters. “And that’s something he needs to do,” says Shuster, “to take away the rap on him that he’s cold and aloof from the audience.”
Romney’s running mate is a more physical campaigner.
When Ryan is announced to a crowd, he often shakes hands and gives high-fives and quick hugs to folks who press up against the waist-high metal barriers that hold back the audience. After events, he lingers, posing for pictures, hugging anyone who wants his embrace, often using both hands to touch the crowd.
Obama, at times, comes across more as the recipient of campaign love than the dispenser.
In July, he began an appearance in West Palm Beach, Florida, by remarking that he’d just received “the most kisses I’ve gotten at any campaign event.” And when a phone went off during his remarks, Obama speculated that it was his wife, Michelle.
“She heard all those women were kissing me,” he joked. “She got a little nervous. She’s feeling a little jealous.”
Of course, Michelle Obama has her own reputation as a liberal dispenser of hugs wherever she goes.
The barriers between presidential candidates and the public gradually have gotten higher in the years since the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the attempts on the lives of Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.
Former President Bill Clinton chafed at the restrictions and still managed to maintain plenty of contact with people.
But Shuster says the restrictions aren’t necessarily a bad thing in the view of many candidates, who don’t always want to chat up every voter in sight.
“I honestly feel like they like the fact that the Secret Service has not permitted them to do things like that,” he says. “It could go on forever.”
John McCain, the GOP nominee in 2008, was known to discreetly pump some hand sanitizer after making contact with voters. Secret Service agents carried some for Clinton, too. Candidates want the public’s votes — not their germs.
In the case of Van Duzer’s powerlift of the president, the pizza man said Secret Service agents told him he “was all right as long as I didn’t take him away.”
Secret Service spokesman Ed Donavan said that when candidates are out in public, agents “are constantly making assessments on the appropriateness of the behaviour of the people” around them. He added that in this case, the agents “felt that the behaviour was appropriate and was consistent with the event.”
After Van Duzer brought the president back down to earth, Obama diplomatically declared, “Look at that!”
But Glass, the body language expert, says Obama didn’t look all that pleased.
“That was a little overboard,” she says.
As for Biden, he proffers both one-armers and two-arm hugs, and high-fives and kisses and shoulder rubs of people of all ages and both genders. And of course he slaps a few backs, too.
“He wants to fit in so badly, it’s kind of a like a puppy that just wants to belong,” says Glass. “He’s overshooting the mark.”