The Monitor's View

Obama's call for Americans to chime in on debt-ceiling deal

His request to call lawmakers in support of a debt-ceiling solution requires a great faith that Americans know how to handle their own debt or can reconcile competing impulses about taxes and spending.

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On Monday, the debt-ceiling fight in Washington got personal.

Not “personal” as in Democrats and Republicans engaging in belittling put-downs. No, a personal moment was reached when President Obama asked Americans during his TV address to contact their lawmakers to support a “balanced” deal.

By throwing the deficit problem back on voters, however, Mr. Obama assumes they know better than Washington how to live within one’s means or how to reconcile expectations of government services with the sacrifices to maintain them.

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Ah, there’s the personal rub in this debt debate.

Last fall, Americans elected a divided government, as Obama acknowledged in his speech, and they are also very conflicted about their own spending and debt.

Despite the Great Recession, the average credit-card debt per household is $8,329. Americans still spend 15 percent of their disposable income on personal debt obligations.

They are also very ashamed of their red ink. Polls show they would be far more likely to reveal their body weight or salary to someone they had just met than to reveal their credit-card imbalance.

Polls also show conflicting impulses on the role of government, or between a person’s selfish demands for particular government services and a demand that others pay more in taxes or suffer spending cuts in other, “nonessential” programs.

Compromise in Washington on spending and taxes may be elusive simply because Americans have huge contradictions in their lives between personal desires and financial responsibilities.

Those impulses are as old as the conflict between Cain and Abel, but today they are writ large – in a $14.3 trillion federal debt and a household debt totaling $13.4 trillion. (Note the similar amount.)

What might change attitudes on finances, both public and private?

The 18th-century thinkers who shaped America’s governing principles hoped for institutions that would either influence or contain the worst traits of behavior.

British philosopher Edmund Burke saw events and trends as shaping personal attitudes: “If a great change is to be made in human affairs, the minds of men will be fitted to it,” he wrote.

Alexander Hamilton, writing in the Federalist Papers, saw that a society of people is “really capable ... of establishing good government from reflection and choice.”

But perhaps it was James Madison who provides the best advice for today’s Americans, who are now being asked by their president to help solve a debt showdown:

“But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” Madison wrote. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

Obama’s appeal for help from voters should be regarded as an appeal to the better angels of Americans – to govern themselves first in order to expect perfect government, as well as a more perfect union.

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