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ON MAIN STREET

A Sense of Resentment Amid the 'For Sale' Signs

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By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 22, 2008

The bailout doesn't smell right to the people of Manassas Park, where the foreclosure signs are as common as azaleas. They know all about bad debt here. This is a terrain of oversize dreams, misjudgment, financial calamity -- and empty houses. "Foreclosure. Foreclosure. Foreclosure," said Ed Merkle, 58, as he pointed to the "for sale" signs lining his street.

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But Merkle, a defense contractor, said he has lived within his means in an era of easy credit. He didn't take on a huge loan even when his bank encouraged him to dream bigger.

"I've been financially responsible with my own money. Why should I now be responsible for the fact that you were not?" he said.

This may be a Main Street bailout backlash in the making. The details of the financial crisis are still hard for most people to follow -- what with talk of exotic "derivatives" known as "credit-default swaps" and so on -- but the central fact of the matter hasn't been lost on anyone in this Northern Virginia community: The taxpayers are on the hook for the bad judgment of others.

And they say they don't like it. They didn't break it, but now they've bought it. Political leaders and financial titans say the bailout is necessary to save the economy, but on the ground, in such places as Manassas Park, people think that the bailout will reward the wrong people. There's a sense that too many folks bought houses they couldn't really afford, banks urged them on, common sense went on vacation, and now the grown-ups have to clean up the mess.

"If I spent more money than I have, I don't deserve to have somebody bail me out," said John Owens, 45, a developer who lives on Eagle Court, where three houses have gone through foreclosure.

The anti-bailout sentiment appears to cut across class lines. You hear it from one end of Manassas Drive, the main drag through town, to the other -- from the small, Cape Cod-style homes built with G.I. Bill money after World War II to the muscle-bound houses newly risen along the golf course.

"I'm worried that the taxpayers are going to wind up paying for all this," said Arlena Elbaraka, 38, who lives in the manicured neighborhood of Blooms Crossing.

"Who ends up losing from all this? Us, right?" asked Rogelio Benitez, 36, a home-improvement contractor who lives with his wife and six kids in a working-class neighborhood on the western edge of town.

"I'm not overextended," Merkle said. "I didn't buy a large home that I can't afford. I'm not behind on any of my payments. I'm not sure I want the government to take my tax dollars and buy someone else's house for them."

The comments suggest that the bailout could pose a stiff new challenge for presidential candidates and anyone else running for office this fall. The wisdom of the government's massive financial intervention hasn't been marketed to the masses. The nation's financial and political leaders are working round the clock to repair the shattered markets, and no one, from the White House on down, has spent more than a few minutes explaining to the American people why they're being asked to assume hundreds of billions of dollars of liabilities.

President Bush said little all week. Finally, in remarks in the Rose Garden on Friday, the president said, "These measures will require us to put a significant amount of taxpayer dollars on the line." All the rescue efforts combined may approach a trillion dollars.


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