President Bush may have a hard time saying anything reassuring about the State of the Union next month. After all, it's hard to be upbeat about the twin threats of war and recession.

Finding applause lines for an audience sure to be anxious and skeptical is bound to present new challenges to the president's speech writers, who haven't won many plaudits lately.Even so, White House advisers are working on a series of ideas, new policy initiatives and lofty language for Bush's second formal address to a joint session of Congress on the nation's well-being.

In what may be a portent of rocky times ahead, chief of staff John H. Sununu usurped a traditional prerogative of the House speaker Tuesday by announcing the date of the speech himself - Jan. 29.

That's two weeks after the United Nations Security Council's deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait or face military action.

The president has said military action will not necessarily be launched on Jan. 15 if Saddam Hussein continues to defy the U.N. resolutions. But by State of the Union time, the whole world should know which side blinked first.

Congress, which is usually sluggish when it reconvenes after the holidays to hear the president's annual address, is sure to be wide awake and combative this year - particularly if Bush has taken military action without first getting its consent.

Beyond the issue of whether the nation will be at war by late January is the current sharp economic downturn, already pronounced a recession by many private economists.

Less than a week after Bush gives his State of the Union address, he must submit his budget for fiscal 1992.

The economic downturn will make it even harder to meet new deficit-reduction targets approved by Congress as part of October's $500 billion, five-year package of tax increases and spending cuts.

Furthermore, the Desert Shield military operation threatens to cost tens of billions of dollars in additional federal spending.

The breakdown of international trade talks in Geneva this week over the issue of farm subsidies - which the United States wants to eliminate but Europe doesn't - could take another big bite out of federal spending.

Under a newly enacted trade retaliation provision, the administration must boost spending on U.S. export subsidies by $1 billion a year if no international agreement is reached to cut such subsidies.

That all adds up to a pretty bleak budget outlook.

White House aides said they haven't started drafting a State of the Union message, although there are plenty of suggestions on what it should include.

But don't look for much soaring language this time. John Kennedy had his "New Frontier," Lyndon Johnson had his "Great Society," Richard Nixon his "silent majority," and Ronald Reagan talked of "morning in America."

Even Bush promised a "kinder and gentler nation" in his campaign and spoke of the "winds of change" in his inaugural address.

But so far, about the only new catch-phrase being tossed about is "the new paradigm."

That term has been trumpeted by Bush's deputy assistant for policy planning, James P. Pinkerton, who says it means a new model, or a new way of looking at an old problem.

It includes a range of self-help programs for the poor, including tenant ownership of public housing and tax incentives for businesses that locate in inner cities.

It has won the backing of many conservatives - if not budget director Richard Darman, who has ridiculed the phrase as mere sloganeering and "neo-neo-ism."

What does Darman suggest instead? How about "new balance," he offered in a recent speech, although he quickly added: "I should make clear that there is absolutely no threat of a `new balance' slogan sweeping the nation."

For his part, Pinkerton said he knows that "new paradigm" may seem a bit unwieldy. But he said he likes it anyway. "I'll probably stick with it even if nobody else does," he said.

Aides said they expect Bush to propose major changes in bank regulation and limits on congressional terms in his speech.

But, with so many uncertainties remaining in the Persian Gulf, they concede that domestic initiatives could easily be overshadowed.