It has been a long time since Americans have faced a new year with such widespread feelings of apprehension and uncertainty. The usual sense of new beginnings and optimism are largely absent as the national economy appears to be staggering and the 1991 deadline for a possible Persian Gulf war is just days away.

The economy might not be such a big concern by itself, especially since the country has experienced eight consecutive years of fiscal growth, if it were not for the huge question mark of Jan. 15 - the deadline the United Nations has given for Iraq to get out of Kuwait, or else.While the higher price of oil has exacerbated the long-expected recession that raised its head in 1990, there is no oil shortage as such. After Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, the oil shortfall caused by the U.N. embargo has long since been made up by other world producers.

But the fear of possible war and what it might do to the crucial oil centers of the Middle East have the world holding its breath. If war comes, Iraq's Saddam Hussein cannot win and he knows it. Yet he might irrationally try to pull the Middle East down in flames around him.

There would be U.S. casualties, perhaps heavy damage to oil fields in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iraq and a resulting skyrocketing price of oil. That would not only badly hurt the American economy, but would devastate frail economies in Eastern Europe and the Third World countries of Asia, Africa and South America.

It is this uncertainty that makes this New Year's holiday more somber than usual. Everywhere one looks, there are problems. Even the continuing failure of communism and the end of the Cold War have created more confusions of their own. The Soviet Union is struggling to hold itself together as a nation.

The so-called "peace dividend" expected from the end of the Cold War is being lost in the deserts of Saudi Arabia, and there is common talk in Washington, D.C., of a $300 billion budget deficit next year. Belief in the ability and integrity of Congress seems to be at an all-time low.

Yet it would be a mistake to be overwhelmed with gloom and doom on this New Year's. There are problems and uncertainties, yes, but they are small compared with some the country has faced in the past.

This recession, even if it gets much worse in 1991, is no Great Depression. Any fight in the Persian Gulf would be a far cry from World War II or a nuclear confrontation.

The United States has lost some ground in world economic affairs, but it is hardly a basket case. The country's share of world production has held steady at 23 percent since the mid-1970s and even increased slightly in the 1980s. Per-worker productivity rose in the 1980s and is actually higher than in Japan or Germany.

There are problems of personal and federal debt, but nothing that could not be solved with more courage and statesmanship in Congress - the one institution in which American pessimism may be justified.

But as the new year dawns, the sense of crisis and uncertainty in the United States may be more a crisis of confidence than anything else. Americans are capable of more discipline, more determination and more sense of purpose than they have been showing of late.

Perhaps the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Great Depression are even more apt today: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."