Heading into the talks, the House speaker, who voted not to certify Biden’s 2020 election victory, is being seen in some corners of Washington as a weak leader – another reason why he may feel tempted to turn on the theatrics in the meeting. His situation mirrors his visit to the White House with fellow congressional leaders in November after Republicans secured a narrow House majority in the midterm elections. The-then minority leader put on a histrionic display outside the West Wing, seemingly aimed at GOP hardliners and even Trump.

“I think the administration got an impression that it’s going to be different,” McCarthy said, touting the new Republican power in Washington – but also perhaps unwisely raising the stakes for himself.

McCarthy is shrugging off charges that he’s a weak puppet of the hardline pro-Trump right. He’s vowing not to play “political games.” And he’s blaming Biden for rigidity.

“I’m looking forward to sitting down with the president, negotiating for the American public, the people of America, on how we can find savings,” McCarthy said. “We’ve watched what the spending has done, we watched it (bring) us inflation. … I think we’re going to sit down and negotiate.”

Do Republicans have a point?

Many Americans are concerned about government splurges in the two years Democrats had full control of Washington, following trillion-dollar bills that passed on the basis of obscure Senate rules and heavy emergency health care and economic outlays during the pandemic.

The Republican House majority might be smaller than the red-wave triumph McCarthy expected, but Republicans still won, in part, by calling to rein in government expenditures. So why shouldn’t House Republicans use the leverage that they have? Some GOP voters and lawmakers will regard the new House majority as a failure if they are not able to stem spending – even if they didn’t have the same inclination when Trump was in the White House.

Republicans appear to be betting they can make Biden cave.

“I think this is an opening salvo. It’s not where they’re going to end up,” Utah Republican Rep. Chris Stewart told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “The Lead” Tuesday.

“The president is going to have to negotiate with us. And hopefully we can get to some concessions that we can say to the American people, yea, we’re trying to be fiscally responsible.”

The risk of miscalculation is grave and growing

This uncertainty is what makes the current situation so dangerous: The risk of each side underestimating the other’s stance is rising.

The White House response to the McCarthy-Stewart position is to argue that even thinking about forcing concessions on such a consequential issue is dangerous.

“Congress has the obligation to prevent default, and speaker McCarthy knows that,” said White House communications director Kate Bedingfield on CNN “Newsroom” on Tuesday, citing the Republican’s previous votes to raise the debt ceiling under Trump.

“The president is going to ask in this meeting tomorrow: Will you commit, will you guarantee to the American people that you will not hold the economy hostage?” Bedingfield said.

The debt ceiling standoff is no less critical for Biden than it is for McCarthy. The president’s first big tussle with the new GOP speaker will set the tone for two years of divided government, establish who is the top dog in the capital and is vital for the economy on which Biden is relying for reelection.

The dynamics of this face-off are also a departure from Biden’s decades of crunch congressional negotiations as a senator and vice president. Republicans may be interpreting that record as a sign that he will not be able to resist a bargaining session. In a more normal political world, one way to unpick the deadlock might be for Biden to offer McCarthy a concession to ease his own particular predicament.

Yet Biden appears to have no such intention, although the White House is messaging – with its new mantra that the president will show McCarthy his budget and demand a corresponding one from the Republicans – that talks can take place, but in the normal process of funding the government for the year, not around the debt issue.

Biden appears to be relying on past logic that Republicans who forced the government into a shutdown or ran the economy close to a debt default end up with the political blame.

But the idea that the GOP recognizes this, and will fold, may not fit this particularly fraught political moment since it’s unclear whether McCarthy has the political juice to do so and keep a job he pursued for years.

As Biden put it on Tuesday at a fundraiser in New York: “McCarthy – look what he had to do. He had to make commitments that are just absolutely off the wall for a speaker of the House to make in terms of being able to become the leader.”

That bargain with the radical Republican right is what makes this such a risky situation for the American people.