"Hello, everybody," came the voice from behind me. It sounded familiar. And the next thing I know President Barack Obama is slapping me on the shoulder and sitting to my right.
Just in case you're wondering: No, this isn't a typical day. I was sitting in a nondescript conference room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, attending a White House-sponsored gathering called the Personal Finance Online Summit.
The speakers were a long list of impressive administration officials, including Austan Goolsbee, the outgoing chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, whose jocular delivery has deservedly earned him multiple appearances with Jon Stewart, and Elizabeth Warren, the administration's special advisor to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, whose energy level could rival your average supernova.
But no one had said anything about the president coming. And that was perhaps fitting, because as he spoke, it was very easy to forget that he was. There wasn't a script. He answered impromptu questions spontaneously. And he illustrated his views of economics not with statistics but by talking about what he learned from real people.
Beginning with his grandmother. "Don't spend all your money," he recalled her telling him. "My grandmother worked her way up from secretary to vice president of a regional bank," he said. She knew that, when it comes to saving, "save a little bit of what you're earning, and the magic of compound interest applies.''
That wouldn't explain the administration's penchant for eye-popping deficits, of course. But Obama pointed out that it isn't practical, or even good, to always eschew debt. He and his wife belong to a generation that "went to college on loans," he said. "When Michelle and I graduated from law school we had $120,000 in student loans. We were lucky because we had gone to good law schools and knew we could earn it. It took us 10 years to pay off, but it was still a good investment."
The same could be said for their first starter home, a condo costing $180,000. "It remains smart to spend on things that are going to increase productivity and wealth over the long haul,'" he said.
That said, he acknowledged that for many Americans, escaping the debt trap is a huge challenge. They face what he called "a quadruple whammy." That is, they start adulthood with student debts, must save for their first home, followed by financing their children's education and maybe supporting elderly parents. "Having spending discipline is very important."
The key, he said, is for families -- and Washington -- to understand the difference between consumption and investment. So despite massive federal deficits, he remains a champion of spending in areas like infrastructure, education and cleaner energy.
"That doesn't mean there won't be hard choices," he said at one point. But in Washington' s heated budget talks, some "will say investment is just another term for spending," he said. "There's an important distinction."