Most Americans are clueless about the debt ceiling debate. It’s too much like calculus, and even more befuddling and confounding when the numbers soar into the stratospheric trillions of dollars.

But lots of folks are beginning to pay attention nowadays following a warning from President Barack Obama that Social Security checks may not be in the mail August 3. And if they missed that wake-up call, they will assuredly heed full-page ads from unions and health services that are protesting what could be close to $300 billion in cuts made to Medicare and Medicaid.

“Are Democrats in Congress about to kill health reform?” is the way one ad from Local 1199 SEIU, the Healthcare Education Project and the Greater New York Hospital Association reads. “This shortsighted proposal includes $60 billion in cuts to teaching hospitals, crippling their ability to train our nation’s doctors.”

The $100 billion in proposed cuts to Medicaid, the ad continues, “will decimate the very program health reform will need to cover millions of uninsured Americans.”

In a nutshell, if it’s possible to cram such a complex issue into such a small space, the debt ceiling is the upper limit on the amount of debt the feds can borrow to operate economic activities in the nation, according to one expert blogger. This law goes back to World War I, and the debt ceiling has been raised 74 times since 1962. Currently, the ceiling is at $14.3 trillion.

“The primary purpose of setting the debt ceiling,” our expert contends, “is to control the budget deficit. Based on policies and related costs, the government settles on the amount it needs to borrow for a given period. Accordingly, it sets the debt limit, which theoretically keeps spending in check.”

If the ceiling isn’t raised by August 2, Obama warns, the county will go into default, damaging many facets of economic viability.

Since rejecting Obama’s latest plan, Sen. Mitch McConnell proposed on Tuesday to allow the president to raise the debt ceiling by $2.5 trillion in three increments until the end of 2012. This process would permit Congress to vote down each increment. However, Obama could veto these rejections, thereby establishing a new debt ceiling.

Obama’s immediate response was that we can’t run the government by increments. Even so, he would have to list spending cuts tantamount to the debt increases.

What this boils down to is a strategy to put the blame on Obama. In effect, each Republican could vote against the debt increase, but be absolved since there are not enough Republican votes to override the veto.

Will this be a sufficient trade-off given the gravity of the crisis? It seems to be the only option because Republicans have rejected two Obama proposals last week that would have cut trillions from federal spending without raising taxes.

Maybe Rep. Charles Rangel got it right when he said this is a moral question, perhaps better handled by our religious leaders.