Summary of Findings

George W. Bush begins his second term with considerably less popular support than other recent incumbent presidents after their reelection. He also is proposing a second-term policy agenda that differs in several key respects from the public’s. Health care, aid for the poor, and the growing budget deficit are all increasingly important public priorities, while limiting lawsuit awards, making recent tax cuts permanent and tax simplification rank near the bottom of the public’s agenda.

Social Security, which the White House has targeted as a major issue, ranks near the top of the public’s policy agenda, with 70% identifying it as a top priority. But the public believes that the health care system currently is in greater need of repair than Social Security, the tax system or the legal system ­ all of which are expected to be the subject of administration initiatives.

Nearly half of Americans (47%) believe the Social Security system now works pretty well and needs only minor changes, with comparable percentages of Republicans and Democrats in agreement on that point. That compares with just 27% who believe that the health care system works fairly well and 36% who say the same about the education system.

In principle, Americans are open to the idea of introducing private accounts into the Social Security system. But in practice, the public believes it is more important to retain a guaranteed monthly Social Security benefit than it is to let younger workers invest in private accounts whose value would rise or fall depending on how their investments perform. The preference for a guaranteed Social Security benefit has grown since the end of the 1990s stock market boom ­ 65% prefer retaining a guaranteed monthly benefit, compared with 54% in October 2000.

The latest survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Jan. 5-9 among 1,503 Americans, finds a yawning partisan gap in public policy priorities and in perceptions of President Bush. Overall, half of Americans approve of the president’s job performance while 43% disapprove. This is well below the approval ratings enjoyed by Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan and Clinton as they began their second term.

Bush’s lower ranking results from greater disapproval among members of the opposing party than was the case for his reelected predecessors. However, Bush continues to draw an extremely high level of support from the GOP base. Bush’s approval rating among his own party (89%) is just as high as his predecessors at the start of their second terms.

Looking ahead, the public believes that the military, business corporations and conservative Christians will gain influence in Bush’s second term. Among those expected to lose influence in Washington, poor people clearly stand out; 49% believe the influence of poor people will decline, compared with 40% who expressed that view at the start of Bush’s first term. Environmentalists, union leaders, and, significantly, older people also are expected to lose influence. In addition, about a third of Americans (34%) say that people like them will have less influence, up from 26% who said that four years ago.

Pew’s annual assessment of the public’s policy priorities reflects the continuing re-emergence of several domestic objectives ­ particularly the need to provide health insurance for the uninsured and deal with the problems of the poor ­ which had faded in importance after the 9/11 terrorism attacks. The deficit also is a growing concern; 56% cite reducing the budget deficit as a top policy priority, up from 40% just two years ago.

As was the case last year, defending the country against terrorism and strengthening the economy are viewed as the top priorities facing the president and Congress. But there are substantial partisan divisions behind these figures. Among Republicans, defending against terrorist attacks is cited as a top priority far more than any other issue, but fewer Democrats (66%) say the same, placing it well below improving the economy, expanding health insurance, improving education, and securing Medicare and Social Security for the future.

In the wake of the contentious presidential campaign, the public expects an even greater level of partisanship in Washington in the year ahead. Roughly six-in-ten (59%) think Democrats and Republicans will oppose each other more than usual, while just 30% believe the two parties will work together. As a point of reference, somewhat more Americans (41%) predicted partisan cooperation at the start of Bush’s first term.

While the economy and terrorism lead the public’s policy agenda, a plurality of Americans (32%) volunteer the war in Iraq as the biggest problem facing the country. As Pew surveys found throughout the presidential campaign, Iraq has propelled foreign policy and defense issues past the economy among the public’s concerns.

Opinion on the war itself has remained stable in recent months, in spite of the ongoing violence in Iraq. There is little sense that elections in Iraq, scheduled for Jan. 30, will do much to bring stability to the country. About half of Americans (49%) think the situation will not change much after the election, while 29% expect the balloting to lead to greater stability and 14% expect the situation to get worse.

The public has been riveted by reports of widespread death and destruction from last month’s tsunami in the Indian Ocean. Nearly six-in-ten Americans (58%) say they have followed news of the tsunami very closely. That is the largest audience for any overseas news story ­ aside from stories about U.S. military forces or American hostages ­ in the nearly two decades of Pew’s monthly news interest index.

Three-in-ten people say they or someone in their household has donated to a charity helping the tsunami victims, while the same number (30%) say they are planning to make a donation. Notably, most of those who have made donations have done so in person (59%) rather than by mail or over the Internet.