A downgraded United States? Unthinkable.

Until, of course, one of the major rating agencies decided to knock down the national bond rating.

Of itself, the opinion of Standard and Poor’s is just that, an opinion. It is based on the chaos of Congress’ debate about raising the debt ceiling, and skepticism that budget cuts agreed to will be upheld over the coming decade when the cuts are supposed to take place.

There is some reason for that skepticism.

Austerity is hard work. Despite some overtures from President Barack Obama in the direction of entitlement cuts, neither political party is eager to grasp leadership if it could be stigmatized as anti-Medicare or anti-Social Security.

Taking a longer view than the gyrating stock markets, is this S&P downgrade really the event that will shake the foundations of the country?

Hardly.

One of the lessons of economic history is that the business recovery from financial panics — such as that we’ve just lived through — is longer than the recovery from traditional recessions. Joblessness tends to linger, as it does in today’s recession.

A nation is not a household, but the parallel with digging oneself out of debt is obvious. “De-leveraging” is tough at the personal and national levels. It’s not achieved overnight.

Today’s economy is more of an endurance test than anyone in politics wants to admit, particularly given the pain felt by millions of Americans out of work for months or even years.

It is their situation that should be front and center in today’s national concerns.