Associated Press
President Barack Obama meets with House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, left, in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Saturday, July 23, 2011, in Washington, to discuss the debt.

The American people, with good reason, are frustrated. And responsible leadership should help guide frustration into positive action — not foment more personal invective.

As the nation continues to reel from the economic downturn that began last decade, almost every one of the nation's institutions continues to struggle. Financial shortfalls, market swings and technological change have put unprecedented stress on families, churches, schools, communities, businesses, non-profits and governments.

Given the persistence of high unemployment, market uncertainty and mounting government debt, it is not surprising that the nation's mood is surly. Institutions that were designed to respond to vastly different economic and social concerns are trying, with mixed success, to cope with today's unprecedented problems.

As the country struggles to find innovative solutions to today's problems, it is appropriate to have significant scrutiny of the reliability and performance of individuals placed in positions of trust and the institutions that they govern. The future health of society depends upon our collective ability to identify and learn from mistakes.

Nevertheless, there is a crucial difference between vigorous, reasoned debate about the merit of ideas and the kind of character attacks that are becoming a staple in contemporary politics.

There seems to be an almost tribal appeal to the us-vs.-them jocularity of talk radio. Online anonymity seems to provide a new kind of scream therapy to denizens of some Internet discussion and comment boards. Call it free speech, call it trash talk — whatever one calls it, too much of the current public discussion of issues in this country models destructive, uncivil behavior.

It would be cause enough for concern if swaggering attacks on character and motive were left to comment boards, blogs and talk radio. But with increasing regularity, key political figures are slipping into disturbing personal attacks and invective.

The most notable example this week comes from Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has announced his intention to seek the Republican presidential nomination. In questioning the wisdom of the Federal Reserve's monetary policy (an issue worth questioning), Perry not only characterized quantitative easing policies as "treasonous," but he disturbingly hinted that physical violence against Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke would be appropriate.

Said Perry, "If this guy prints more money between now and the election, I don't know what you all would do to him in Iowa, but we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas."

Throughout a long campaign, candidates are bound to misspeak. We don't wish to make someone an offender for a word. But as candidates try out, as it were, for the position of executive officer of the nation, it is fair to scrutinize how they would wield one of the most powerful weapons of the presidency: rhetoric.

Indeed, although our current president's rhetoric is somewhat less personally directed, it can, from time to time, be disturbingly intemperate. President Obama too often paints sinister motives onto those opposed to his policies, albeit with a very broad brush. It would be one thing, for example, for him to debate substantively the merits of what House Republicans propose to do to entitlements. Sadly, however, the president has a tendency to attack their policies indirectly by ascribing venal motives and bad faith to their policy prescriptions.

In our opinion, an ethic of self-government can only thrive when those who aspire to leadership demonstrate an ethic of civil discourse grounded in the Golden Rule. Fellow citizens, even those with different ideas about policy, are individuals deserving of dignity and respect. Along with our right to engage in public affairs, we have a corresponding ethical responsibility to engage in ways that preserve and enhance the dignity and civility of the process.