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Posted at 12:11 PM ET, 01/24/2011

Policy priorities for the year ahead

By Peyton Craighill

President Barack Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday offers an opportunity to focus the nation's attention on the policy priorities for the year ahead - but the public is already honed in on Topic A, the economy.

Fully 72 percent of Americans say the economy should have the president and Congress' closest attention, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. Recent economic indicators - from consumer spending to productivity to a rebounding stock market to improving consumer confidence - suggest an economic thaw, but public ratings of the economy remain overwhelmingly negative. Nearly nine in 10 still rate the economy as "not so good" or outright "poor."

After the economy, the level of focus on individual issues falls off sharply. Next up on the priorities list is the federal budget deficit, with 50 percent of Americans saying Obama and the Congress should give it "the highest priority." Following the deficit are education, health care and terrorism, all in the in the low 40s. Afghanistan and taxes each receive 31 percent on top priority, with immigration (24 percent) and global warming (16 percent) rounding out the list.

The economy is a rare instance of a policy priority that crosses partisan lines, with it atop the list for Democrats, Republicans and independents alike. By contrast, majorities of Republicans and independents say the deficit should be one of the highest priorities, but only 44 percent of Democrats agree. Terrorism is the only other item for which a majority of Republicans say it should be a top priority. Health care and education motivate majorities of Democrats.

The ranking of these priorities is roughly the same as it was on the eve of Obama's inaugural two years ago. The economy was ranked slightly higher at 76 percent, followed by terrorism and the deficit at 50 and 48 percent each. The security issues - terrorism and Afghanistan - have seen some slippage since 2009, down eight and six points each. That decline is slightly more prominent among Republicans, down 13 and eight points on each issue.

Then as now, health care rated a lesser priority, but still one that 84 percent of Americans say should be the highest priority or at least a "high priority but not the highest" topic this year .

Q: For each issue I name, please tell me what kind of priority you think Obama and the Congress should give it - the highest priority, a high priority but not the highest, or a lower priority than that?

                  % saying highest priority
                 --- 2011 ---   --- 2009 ---
                 All D  R  I    All D  R  I
The economy      72  74 69 74   76  82 65 78
The deficit      50  44 56 53   48  47 51 46
Education        43  50 31 43   42  39 40 45
Health care      43  54 33 42   41  46 30 43
Terrorism        42  37 52 40   50  42 65 50
Afghanistan      31  31 33 29   37  35 41 33
Taxes            31  27 29 34   23  21 22 25
Immigration      24  20 28 24   21  15 27 22
Global warming   16  22  3 19   17  25  6 19

By Peyton Craighill  | January 24, 2011; 12:11 PM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama, Congress, Economy, Federal Budget Deficit, Health care, Immigration  
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