So which will it be: catastrophe or no? And if it’s catastrophe, how soon will that happen?

People on the left are ramping up the fear, and people on the right trying to minimize it, both for obvious tactical purposes of their own. But failure to raise the debt ceiling is uncharted territory, and the best opinions are just guesses—although if it fails to be raised by the October 17 deadline, I guess we’ll find out whose prognostications were right and whose wrong.

Even that will not be completely clear, though, because predictions can function as a self-fulfilling prophecy, and fear is contagious.

One thing that is clear is that Paul Ryan is correct when he writes in the WSJ:

The president says he “will not negotiate” on the debt ceiling. He claims that such negotiations would be unprecedented. But many presidents have negotiated on the debt ceiling—including him.

Obama would like the public to think he can’t negotiate on this and that to do so would be unheard of. But what is actually going on here is that past presidents who have had to deal with divided government (which is what Obama faces; the House is in Republican hands right now) have always known that in such a situation they must negotiate.

Whichever party they have been affiliated with, and whether you think they were good presidents or bad ones, they have kept faith with the basic gentleman’s/woman’s agreement on which our government has always run, and that is that if the other side was duly elected to be in control of another branch of government, that group has some legitimate power and must be negotiated with.

Obama is different.

He had the brilliant idea that, although Republicans are in control of the House right now, they have no power unless they agree with him, and it is okay for him to defy them because it will have no repercussions on either him or his party (which is largely aligned with him). Therefore he can Just Say No to whatever Republican demands might be, and blame them for the failure to come to any sort of agreement.

And the reason he is able to get away with this is a simple one: he knows the media will not call him on it, but will instead support him and amplify his message.

It’s a toxic combination, and that’s what’s “unprecedented”—at least in this country.

[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]