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Having contradictory thoughts about the debt ceiling? You're not alone.

People think the government spends too much, but they like their federal programs just as they are. Congress's budget-master Doug Elmendorf is here to help.

By Staff writer / September 20, 2013

Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf speaks at a Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters in Washington, D.C., Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor

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Washington

Doug Elmendorf sounds frustrated, in a good-natured way. The head of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office sees big fiscal problems looming for America, and the public just doesn’t get it.

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Staff writer

Linda Feldmann is a staff writer for the Monitor based in Washington.

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The CBO chief says most members of Congress understand the problem: Federal health and retirement programs threaten to overwhelm the budget and damage the economy, unless Washington does something. But the public complicates things.  

“One obstacle to progress is that I’m not sure that members of the public understand the nature of the challenge,” Mr. Elmendorf told reporters at a Monitor breakfast this week.

“I think there are many people in the country who don’t like federal spending in the abstract and don’t want to pay more in taxes to support more federal spending in the abstract, but who actually put great value on the benefits they receive from Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid,” says the Princeton- and Harvard-trained economist.

Elmendorf doesn’t blame the Average Joe for not spending hours poring over the CBO’s website, reading his blog, and checking out the reports. (Oh, and CBO also now has two Twitter accounts: @USCBO and @USCBOcostest.) But having a well-informed public might make his – and Congress’s and the president’s – job easier.

The public’s seemingly contradictory views play out repeatedly in opinion polls on the fast-approaching limit on Washington’s borrowing authority, known as the debt ceiling.

The Washington Post’s "Fix" blog points to two numbers in the latest Post-ABC News poll: First is the 43 percent of Americans who don’t want Congress to raise the debt limit and thus are willing to allow the nation to go into default. Second is the 73 percent who say going into default would do “serious harm” to the economy.

The Fix folks crunched the numbers and found that those who hold both views simultaneously – don’t want to raise the debt limit and yet also believe it will harm the economy – amount to 26 percent of the American public.

Either these people aren’t thinking straight, or, the Fix suggests, they are willing to put up with “short-term pain for long-term gain” – a crisis that forces politicians to solve the problem, despite the huge risks.

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