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

Pew Research Center logo The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press recently released their latest national survey on the public's priorities. Only 49% of respondents view dealing with the energy problem as a top priority (vs 60% last year). Global warming remains the public's lowest ranked with only 28% considering it a top priority. However, the public's view of the environment has improved slightly with 44% (up 3 points) viewing that as a priority. Two of the main partisan divides are climate and the environment.

Posted Jan. 25, 2010
By The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press

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%. Pew1

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.

Pew2

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

Pew3 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).

About the Survey

Results for this survey are based on telephone interviews conducted
under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates
International among a national sample of 1,504 adults living in the
continental United States, 18 years of age or older, from January 6-10,
2010 (1,000 respondents were interviewed on a landline telephone, and
504 were interviewed on a cell phone, including 201 who had no landline
telephone). Both the landline and cell phone samples were provided by
Survey Sampling International. Interviews were conducted in English and
Spanish. For detailed information about our survey methodology, see http://people-press.org/methodology/.

The
combined landline and cell phone sample are weighted using an iterative
technique that matches gender, age, education, race/ethnicity, region,
and population density to parameters from the March 2009 Census
Bureau's Current Population Survey. The sample is also weighted to
match current patterns of telephone status and relative usage of
landline and cell phones (for those with both), based on extrapolations
from the 2009 National Health Interview Survey. The weighting procedure
also accounts for the fact that respondents with both landline and cell
phones have a greater probability of being included in the combined
sample and adjusts for household size within the landline sample.
Sampling errors and statistical tests of significance take into account
the effect of weighting.

The following table shows the error
attributable to sampling that would be expected at the 95% level of
confidence for different groups in the survey:

In addition to sampling error, one should bear in mind that question
wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce
error or bias into the findings of opinion polls.

ABOUT THE CENTER

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press is an
independent opinion research group that studies attitudes toward the
press, politics and public policy issues. We are sponsored by The Pew
Charitable Trusts and are one of seven projects that make up the Pew
Research Center, a nonpartisan "fact tank" that provides information on
the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world.

The
Center's purpose is to serve as a forum for ideas on the media and
public policy through public opinion research. In this role it serves
as an important information resource for political leaders,
journalists, scholars, and public interest organizations. All of our
current survey results are made available free of charge.

All
of the Center’s research and reports are collaborative products based
on the input and analysis of the entire Center staff consisting of:

Andrew Kohut, Director
Scott Keeter, Director of Survey Research
Carroll Doherty and Michael Dimock, Associate Directors
Michael Remez, Senior Writer
Robert Suls, Shawn Neidorf, Leah Christian, Jocelyn Kiley and Alec Tyson, Research Associates
Jacob Poushter, Research Assistant

© Pew Research Center, 2010

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