January 25, 2010

Public’s Priorities for 2010: Economy, Jobs, Terrorism

Energy Concerns Fall, Deficit Concerns Rise

Summary of Findings

As Barack Obama begins his second year in office, the public’s priorities for the president and Congress remain much as they were one year ago. Strengthening the nation’s economy and improving the job situation continue to top the list. And, in the wake of the failed Christmas Day terrorist attack on a Detroit-bound airliner, defending the country from future terrorist attacks also remains a top priority.

At the same time, the public has shifted the emphasis it assigns to two major policy issues: dealing with the nation’s energy problem and reducing the budget deficit. About half (49%) say that dealing with the nation’s energy problem should be a top priority, down from 60% a year ago. At the same time, there has been a modest rise in the percentage saying that reducing the budget deficit should be a top priority, from 53% to 60%.

Other policy priorities show little change from a year ago. For example, despite the ongoing debate over health care reform, about as many now call reducing health care costs a top priority (57%) as did so in early 2009 (59%). In fact, the percentage rating health care costs a top priority is lower now than it was in both 2008 (69%) and 2007 (68%).

In addition, the percentage placing top priority on providing health insurance to the uninsured stands at 49%. That is little changed from a year ago and off its high of 61% in January 2001. Notably, there is now a wider partisan gap in opinion about this issue than for any of the other 20 issues in the survey: fully 75% of Democrats rate providing health insurance to the uninsured as a top priority compared with just 26% of Republicans.

More than six-in-ten Americans say securing the Social Security system (66%) and securing the Medicare system (63%) should be top priorities for Obama and Congress. About as many (65%) say that improving the educational system should be a top policy priority. For all three items, public evaluations are not significantly different than they were one year ago.

In the wake of the financial crisis, the public does not place increased financial regulation among its top policy priorities. Fewer than half (45%) say stricter regulation of financial institutions should be a top priority for the president and Congress.

Budget Deficit and Energy

The priority given to reducing the budget deficit has risen seven points over the last year; in early 2009, 53% of the public called deficit reduction a top priority compared with 60% in the current survey. Both Republicans (+10 points) and Democrats (+8 points) have become more likely to say this is a top priority.

Emphasis on the budget deficit has increased since 2002, when it reached a low ebb following several years of budget surpluses (from 1998 to 2001 the question was worded “paying off the national debt”). Currently, the priority given to reducing the budget deficit is not significantly higher than it was in 2008 (58% top priority) or 1997 (60% top priority) and it lags slightly behind the high of 65% in December 1994.

In the past two years, there has been no difference between the priority Republicans and Democrats place on reducing the budget deficit. In the current survey, a single point separates Republicans (61% top priority) from Democrats (60% top priority). In 2009, partisans were equally close in their views. This is a dramatic change from much of the previous decade. Throughout the Bush administration, Democrats expressed far more concern than Republicans over the deficit. The opposite was true in 1997, when Bill Clinton was in office. At that time significantly more Republicans than Democrats said reducing the budget deficit should be a top priority.

Six-in-ten independents say this should be a top priority, matching the views of Republicans and Democrats. Independents’ concern over the budget deficit has been stable over the past three years.

While concern over the budget deficit has gone up, the percentage giving priority to dealing with the nation’s energy problem has declined significantly – and this decline has taken place among Republicans, Democrats and independents alike. In the current survey, 49% rate energy a top priority, down 11 points from 60% in 2009. In the late 2000s, about six-in-ten consistently gave top priority to dealing with the nation’s energy problem. The current number is more in line with views from the early years of that decade, when the percentage that said dealing with the nation’s energy problem should be a top priority ranged from the low-to-mid 40s.

Global Warming and the Environment

Dealing with global warming ranks at the bottom of the public’s list of priorities; just 28% consider this a top priority, the lowest measure for any issue tested in the survey. Since 2007, when the item was first included on the priorities list, dealing with global warming has consistently ranked at or near the bottom. Even so, the percentage that now says addressing global warming should be a top priority has fallen 10 points from 2007, when 38% considered it a top priority. Such a low ranking is driven in part by indifference among Republicans: just 11% consider global warming a top priority, compared with 43% of Democrats and 25% of independents.

Protecting the environment fares somewhat better than dealing with global warming on the public’s list of priorities, though it still falls on the lower half of the list overall. Some 44% say that protecting the environment should be a top priority for Obama and Congress, little changed from 2009.

Jobs, Economy and Terrorism Defense

Strengthening the nation’s economy, improving the job situation and defending the country from future terrorist attacks are far-and-away the top three policy priorities for the public. No other item comes within 14 points. Last year, both the economy and jobs edged ahead of defending the nation against terrorism as top priorities. In 2008, the economy and terrorism defense were virtually tied atop the priority list, while somewhat fewer people expressed concern over jobs. In 2006 and 2007, the public was more concerned about terrorism than it was about economic issues.

Improving the job situation has moved to the top of the list only recently. For much of the past decade, the percent of the public calling the job situation a top priority fluctuated in the 60s and trailed the economy. It spiked to 82% in 2009 and stands at 81% in the current survey.

There are no major differences in how Republicans, Democrats and independents prioritize strengthening the economy. Democrats are somewhat more likely than Republicans and independents to rate improving the job situation as a top priority. And Republicans are slightly more inclined than Democrats and independents to give top priority to defending the country from future terrorist attacks. Nonetheless, at least 75% of all groups give top priority to these issues, and partisan differences are generally modest when compared to differences over other policy priorities.

Dueling Partisan Agendas

Despite general partisan agreement on the importance of improving the job situation, strengthening the economy and protecting the country, large differences exist between Republicans and Democrats on other leading issues.

Republicans and Democrats take starkly different positions on the importance of providing health insurance to the uninsured; 75% of Democrats call this a top priority compared with 26% of Republicans. The 49-point gap in opinion is the largest for any of the 21 issues tested. Health insurance also was the most political divisive issue a year ago, though the gap was smaller at 38 points. In the current survey, 41% of independents call providing health insurance to the uninsured a top priority.

Democrats also are far more likely than Republicans to put a top priority on dealing with global warming, the problems of poor and needy people, protecting the environment, reducing health care costs and improving the educational system. In each case, Democrats are at least 20 points more likely than Republicans to consider each of these issues top priorities.

Republicans, by contrast, place more emphasis than do Democrats on strengthening the military, dealing with illegal immigration, and reducing the influence of lobbyists and special interests in Washington. Here again, the gaps in opinion are relatively large, with Republicans being about 20 points more likely than Democrats to call each of these issues top priorities.

The gap between Republicans and Democrats on reducing the influence of lobbyists and special interest groups in Washington has widened this year; 45% of Republicans say this should be a top priority compared with 27% of Democrats. In 2009, Republicans (37%) were somewhat more likely than Democrats (30%) to call reducing the influence of lobbyists and special interests a top priority. And in 2007, the partisan balance was reversed with more Democrats (44%) calling this a top priority than Republicans (28%).

Reducing the budget deficit and reducing federal income taxes for the middle class are two points of partisan agreement. Almost the same percentage of Republicans and Democrats call these issues top priorities.

State of the Union Address

With Obama’s State of the Union address set for Jan. 27, 39% say that this year’s address will be more important than past years’ addresses, while 45% think it will be about as important as previous State of the Union addresses. Just 9% say it will be less important. At 39%, the public assigns greater importance to Obama’s address than they did to the last three State of the Union speeches given by former President George W. Bush. Nonetheless, fewer see Obama’s upcoming address as more important than said that about Bush’s State of the Union addresses in 2002 and 2003.

In January 2002, 54% said that Bush’s State of the Union was more important than in previous years. Opinion was similar a year later in January 2003. The percentage saying that Obama’s State of the Union address is more important than in previous years is much greater than it was for former President Clinton’s speeches in 1999 and 2000.

About half of Democrats (54%) say that Obama’s State of the Union address will be more important than speeches in past years. Republicans and independents are less inclined to take this view: 30% of Republicans and 32% of independents say it will be more important, while pluralities of both groups say it will be about as important as past addresses (49% of independents say this, as do 47% of Republicans).