POSTED BY: | January 24, 2012

Pew Research Center

With the 2012 State of the Union tonight (1.24.2012), the public continues to give the highest priority to economic issues. Fully 86% say that strengthening the economy should be a top priority for the president and Congress this year, and 82% rate improving the job situation as a top priority. None of the other 20 issues tested in this annual survey rate as a top priority for more than 70% of Americans.


More generally, the public’s concerns rest more with domestic policy than at any point in the past 15 years; 81% say Obama should be focused on domestic policy, just 9% say foreign policy. In keeping with this, defending against terrorism and strengthening the military are given less priority today than over the course of the past decade.

Nonetheless, the public is keeping a wary eye on Iran. It is now seen as the country that represents the greatest danger to the U.S., and more Americans prioritize taking a firm stand against Iran over avoiding military conflict. And with respect to restructuring America’s national security policy, the public is evenly divided as to whether a smaller military can be just as effective as a larger one in facing future security challenges.

The new poll finds that the federal budget deficit stands out as the fastest growing policy priority for Americans, largely because of growing Republican concerns about the issue. In the national survey, conducted Jan. 11-16 among 1,502 adults, 69% rate reducing the budget deficit as a top priority – the most in any of the Pew Research Center’s annual policy priority updates going back to 1994.

The number of Republicans rating the budget deficit as a top priority has spiked to 84% from 68% a year ago and just 42% five years ago. Meanwhile Republicans are placing far less emphasis on terrorism, which was their top priority in every year between 2002 and 2008. Today 72% rate it as a top priority, down from 83% a year ago and 93% five years ago. By contrast, the emphasis Democrats and independents give to terrorism and the budget deficit has changed far less.

Despite a recent focus on the issue of money in politics, including the role of Super PACs in the 2012 Republican primaries, the issue remains on the back burner for most Americans. Just 28% say reforming the campaign finance system is a top priority for the president and Congress in 2012, and it is one of the lowest ranked issues across party lines. Somewhat more (40%) say reducing the influence of lobbyists and special interest groups in Washington is a top priority. There has been little change in the public’s focus on either issue compared with previous years.

About six-in-ten Americans (61%) say that making the tax system more fair should be a top priority for the president and Congress this year. It ranks among the top 10 issue priorities, well above items like immigration or the environment, and nearly on par with perennially top-tier issues like education (65% top priority). Democrats and independents rate this as a more critical issue than do Republicans, but half of Republicans say this should be a top priority in 2012. About two-thirds of Americans with household incomes under $75,000 rate this as a top priority, compared with about half of those earning $75,000 or more.

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