"THE ELECTIONS showed that the American people do not want a tax increase," White House chief of staff James Baker said the other day. He's right. It's also fair to say that most people don't think the country can go along piling up debt at a rate unheard of in its history. But did they really sign off on the very deep cuts in most programs that will be required if, as the president insists, the military budget is to continue to grow and taxes are not to be raised? Or were they lulled by the president's upbeat campaign statements into believing that the economic recovery had wiped away the need for hard choices?

If all you had heard were the president's stump speeches and debate performances you would certainly not have gotten the idea that a budget crisis was in the offing. But a person would almost have had to make a calculated effort not to have known better than that. It is true that, four years ago, most people -- probably including the newly elected president -- had only the foggiest idea of what federal money bought. If they'd had to guess they would have said that the bulk of it (rather than a tiny fraction) went for welfare payments, most of which ended up in the pocket of everyone's no- good nephew.

But four years have gone by in which the general public has been bombarded with daily information about the federal budget. By now people have had an opportunity to learn that federal dollars buy such useful things as nursing home care for your elderly relative, better-running mass transit, crack-downs on drug traffic, hazardous waste cleanups, spacewalks, safer drugs and foods, and restorative operations for handicapped infants. Many people and communities have already had firsthand experience of what federal budget cuts mean -- though the cuts that are coming would have to be much larger and more pervasive to close the remaining budget gap. And, of course, there was that Democratic presidential candidate who kept pressing the subject.

That being so, you might conclude that most people already understand what is required in the way of sacrifice and voted for it. And if they don't and didn't, perhaps the best way to learn is for the president to lay out the full range of cuts that his program requires -- with no "magic asterisks" or puffed-up claims of management savings -- and let Congress and the public debate the gory details.