Though opinion polls show Americans are highly critical of the White House and Congress for failing to produce a new budget on time, this public reaction is misplaced.

Instead of being merely critical, the public should be boiling mad.Why?

Because the latest budget fiasco is merely the latest in a long series of disasters involving chronic federal mismanagement of public finances.

And because this mismanagement has finally reached the point where some of our closest and most affluent friends are starting to lose confidence in America's ability to govern itself.

As a result, some of the foreign credit that has helped America engage in a long orgy of self-indulgence is starting to dry up.

But then the public can't get angry about this situation without getting angry not just at Washington but at itself.

Forget, for a moment, the current fumbling with the budget that has made Washington's latest fiscal dealings look like a cross between the Perils of Pauline and the Keystone Cops.

Instead, look at a problem that will persist long after Washington pieces together a new budget by exacting a few higher taxes and a few spending cuts but resorting to the usual subterfuge of ignoring some financial obligations.

Look, that is, not at the latest deficit figures but at the huge and growing mountain of national debt that America has accumulated over the years.

As of this weekend, that debt came to a total of $3,195,000,000,000. That's $3.195 trillion - amounting to $13,000 for every man, woman, and child in the country. And the figure is rising daily.

So big, in fact, has the national debt become that just the interest payments to lenders for all the money the government has borrowed will soon surpass the $290 billion a year to be spent to defend the country.

Still not appalled?

Then consider the fact that it took 200 years for the national debt to reach $1 trillion, but only five more years to hit $2 trillion and another five to hit $3 trillion.

Now Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady is insisting that the permanent limit on the national debt must be raised to $3.51 trillion just to get through the fiscal year that started Oct. 1. Some limit! Some permanence!

No wonder there has been a 50 percent drop in foreign purchases of U.S. government debt issues since last year. No wonder that for the first time since 1982, America's chief creditor - Japan - has become a net seller of U.S. debt securities.

Don't expect other foreign lenders to be eager to fill the gap left by Japan. Instead, the best that can be expected is sharply higher interest charges for any new loans to the United States.

Further delay in whittling down the federal deficit could send the national debt soaring even higher than it already is. What's needed is not just some painful sacrifices for a few years but belt-tightening as a continuing way of life in America. But that won't happen until this nation's leaders fear the wrath of short-sighted voters less than they fear the consequences of a growing mountain of debt.