The French have a wonderful expression, "He is comfortable in his skin." (Il est bien dans son peau.)
In last night's final Presidential debate that was the stark difference between Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama.
John McCain squirmed as if he were wearing scratchy winter underwear. He is not at ease in his facial expressions or his body movements. It seemed as if he had been told to look at Obama, to smile, to act as if he were enjoying himself, but all we saw was that it was hard for him to smile at someone he so intensely disliked, and that he was absolutely not enjoying himself. Of course it is easier to enjoy yourself if you are ahead in the polls.
It's hard work to be the underdog and huff and puff to try to catch up. Barack Obama has a natural front-runner's grace, he has reached a comfortable stride and he's sticking to it. McCain is still searching for an appropriate beat, which makes him contort his face, blink his eyes, and not know exactly where to look. He cannot hide his disbelief that this new young Senator should so easily over-take him, when "generations of McCain's" gave McCain the legacy to be President.
I know we should place more emphasis on substance rather than style; we should listen to what they say, and pay less attention to how they look. But it is hard to follow those intelligent instructions. Body language does matter, and it does tell us something about the candidates. Someone who knows who he is, is simply more attractive. As one commentator said after the debate, "I don't think voters will want to watch John McCain on their television sets for the next four years."
At this time of economic uncertainty, when the stock market is gyrating wildly, when jobs are going down the drain, when savings are disappearing, voters want a leader who is sure of himself and who can assure them that he can be a strong leader. They want a leader who acts like he knows where he's going, not someone who seems as erratic as the times in which we find ourselves. Not that Obama has all the answers—but he is calm in a time of turbulence, he knows who he is and where he wants to take us. That ability to retain his sense of equilibrium is bound to serve him well in the roller coast days ahead.
Madeleine M. Kunin is the former Governor of Vermont and was the state's first woman governor. She served as Ambassador to Switzerland for President Clinton, and was on the three-person panel that chose Al Gore to be Clinton's VP. She is the author of Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead from Chelsea Green Publishing.