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Birth of a Salesman: Pitching Social Security

By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page D01

FARGO, N.D. -- George Bush wants to retool Social Security badly enough to visit Fargo in February. He comes in on a roll -- fresh from his inauguration, an election in Iraq and a well-received State of the Union speech. It's even sunny and warm here, like the president himself, who is in a hot sales mode.

"As you can tell, I'm upbeat," the president says from a stage in front of 7,000 screaming fans. He no longer has to run for reelection or sell himself. But Bush is still selling, pitching the unsexy policy widgets of "personal retirement accounts," "thrift savings accounts" and "an ownership society."

(Nati Harnik -- AP)

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Social Security

The president is also touting: "courage" (to act), "responsibility" (to our young people) and "freedom" (whether from tyrants or government-imposed financial burdens). Social Security is Bush's signature product rollout this year. It is a tough sale, even to the rent-a-choir audiences of ticketed supporters the president addressed last week. The issues are complex and the here-and-now is comfortable.

But some of the country's most celebrated hawkers marvel at Bush's gift for selling. They rave about how he connects and inspires. With exclamation points!

"You can tell he has God within him!" says Zig Ziglar, the sales guru and motivational speaker, in a phone interview from Montgomery, Ala., where he is hosting a seminar.

"The president walks with his shoulders erect!" lauds Tom Hopkins, a professional trainer and author of "How to Master the Art of Selling" and "Selling for Dummies." "He makes great eye contact! He is buoyant! He walks at a fast pace! You can tell he's a great listener!" These are all the marks of successful salespeople, Hopkins says. Great salespeople like Tom Hopkins, he keeps telling us. "I have had so much success in real estate! I've set so many sales records!"

President Bush paraded his gifts as he stumped for his Social Security plan over 36 hard-selling hours beginning in Fargo on Thursday and ending in Tampa late Friday afternoon. In each city, he hosted a "Conversation on Strengthening Social Security," although the spectacles more resembled pep rallies or massive sales seminars.

Bush won all five states he visited -- North Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Arkansas and Florida. Each is represented by potentially vulnerable Democratic senators, three of whom face reelection next year. If the president can excite his potential "buyers," it will set in motion what is known in sales circles as "the word-of-mouth train." Ideally, the train will make a stop at a persuadable senator's office.

Here are some of the fundamental sales tenets that Bush adheres to in his presidential pitch:

Sell urgency!

Crisis looms for Social Security, Bush says. By 2042, the system would go "flat bust" if no action is taken. "And if we wait, it gets worse," he says in Omaha on Friday. In 13 years, the system will begin paying out more money in benefits than it's reaping in taxes.

Bush conveys passion and resolve, in keeping with a golden rule of Zig Ziglar. "The depth of your conviction," he says, "is more persuasive than the eloquence of the words you use."

He shows up on time (because lateness says "I don't respect your time," according to Jeffrey Gitomer's bestseller "The Sales Bible"), and will stay focused without seeming scripted, and sell hard without looking like he's selling hard. Bush conveys a sense that he is being natural, not presenting or performing. In "How to Win Friends and Influence People," Dale Carnegie wrote that people are most persuasive within the context of being themselves. Potential buyers, Carnegie wrote, should never feel manipulated or lectured to.

Good salespeople and politicians are repetitive. Bush hammers home three themes in each presentation: Social Security has a problem and it needs fixing (but people over 55 have nothing to worry about). He is open to ideas. He has a few of his own.

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