“We are running out of time,” President Obama told the nation Friday morning, during a brief conference on the debt ceiling.

There’s a countdown clock that’s becoming a more and more noticeable fixture of Web sites — the Post has one — and television coverage of the debt ceiling debate.

These days, the hourglass is the ultimate accessory.

What’s peculiar is this is not the first time this year we’ve been watching a clock tick down until some World-Ending Paradox ensues.

Everything has been awfully apocalyptic lately.

“Keep on dancing ’til the world ends,” Britney Spears’ creepy disembodied voice sings on the radio.

We’re taking telomere tests because someone told us that these measure How Long We May Have Left To Live.

We’ve run up on a number of ending deadlines — and so far, they’ve all been awfully anticlimactic. Maybe we’ve gone soft. “Harold Camping insisted that the world would end on May 21, 2011, and nothing really bad happened,” we point out. “August 2 is in four days, but, really, what’s the worst thing that could possibly happen to our credit rating? If the actual Apocalypse can hit the snooze button until October, I’m confident that a short-term debt ceiling resolution will be fine!”

Next up, 2012, when we fall off the edge of the Mayan calendar into the abyss.

But there is a subtle but meaningful distinction between End Times and deadlines. All our rapture-ready apocalyptic thinking makes it sound as though we’re on the verge of a global snow day when all debts will be canceled by some large and invisible hand. A Web site called RaptureReady, one of the top Google results for End Times, catalogues current events — including the failure to move the ceiling — as signs of the end. It’s an exciting thought, but it’s hardly conducive to responsible decision-making.

“Must we worry about this?” we ask. “Isn’t a giant asteroid due to hit the Earth?”

The apocalypse is a handy release valve.

Without the possibility of a magical, last-minute reprieve, deadlines have a certain power. They can be stultifying or inspiring. Give us a deadline, and we will give you something we possibly cobbled together at the last minute. In fact, if it weren’t for the last minute, we wouldn’t get anything done at all. The work may be incoherent and consist entirely of inapt analogies to trees, but hey, it’s better than nothing.

Now we’re running out of time. The debt ceiling is refusing to raise itself. And there goes that countdown. All the language sounds very apocalyptic. Ben Bernanke in February said that failing to raise the ceiling would be “catastrophic.” It’s been described as a “debacle” with “apocalyptic consequences.” What will happen when the hourglass empties? It’s anyone’s guess.

It would be so much more convenient if we did live in the End Times. Forget posterity? We already have. All we have to do is sit back, relax, and wait for the angels to swoop down and pluck us away from the debt debate. That’s an apocalyptic consequence we can all get behind!

The trouble is when you mistake a deadline for the end times.

Is this deadline going to have its usually salutary effect?

Or will it be a frantic scramble to hit the snooze button?

“I love deadlines,” said the science fiction writer Douglas Adams. “I love the whooshing noise they make as they fly by.”

Let the countdown commence.