To “work the room” is to move through a crowd, greeting people and engaging them in conversation.
Working the room typically involves a lot of handshaking, hugging, or backslapping as well as plenty of visible enthusiasm.
Working the room is a close cousin of glad-handing. It’s a valuable skill for any politician, offering them a way to connect with the public. Working the room is also a way to build up rapport and support among political colleagues.
Take, for example, a Los Angeles Times piece about Vice President Kamala Harris’ efforts to schmooze members of Congress. It described the vice president’s meetings with key Democratic allies. She met with a group of lawmakers and addressed them all, and then she worked the room. As the newspaper described it: “Harris pulled lawmakers aside, asking if they needed help making sure their priorities were addressed in the spending bill.”
Former President Bill Clinton was famous for his ability to work a room. A 2017 Vanity Fair piece claimed that the former president still had his old skill:
Bill Clinton has been out of the White House for nearly 17 years, and despite what many people expected in 2016, won’t likely live there again. But the Arkansas native hasn’t lost the gifts that got him there in the first place—namely, taking command of a room the moment he walks in the door. Per Page Six, when Clinton arrived at Cantor Fitzgerald’s annual Charity Day in New York City, the whole room turned its attention to him.”
In fact, that’s the kind of praise often given to an elder statesman. The Yale News gave the same kind of credit to George H.W. Bush when he visited his alma mater in 2007; the paper noted, George H. W. Bush ’48 retired from politics 14 years ago, but he still knows how to work a room.
The Philadelphia Inquirer had pretty much the same thing to say about George W. Bush, when he came to town in 2008: “With six weeks left in office, President Bush showed yesterday in his last official visit to Philadelphia that he still knows how to work a crowd,” the newspaper wrote, adding that the outgoing president was friendly, relaxed and charismatic throughout his visit.
Working the crowd is the outdoors version of working the room.
Take CNN’s report on one of Donald Trump’s visits to Iowa ahead of his presidential run:
Hundreds of rowdy football fans swarmed the businessman-turned-presidential candidate Saturday as he zipped around the football stadium – each extending a hand, hoping for a high-five, and maybe a selfie.
“Go get ‘em Donald!” one man shouted as Trump worked the tailgating crowd before the day’s Iowa-Iowa State game.
Working the stage is also a close relative. While it doesn’t involve glad-handing and close, focused conversations with individuals, working the stage also involves a similar kind of emotive performance
That’s what CNN was getting at when they wrote in praise of Barack Obama:
Every president has to know how to work a stage. Obama took his penchant for performance in an unexpected direction one night when he stood on the famed Apollo Theater in New York City.