Summary of Findings

With the economy slowing and the stock market reeling, there is greater agreement among Republicans and Democrats that strengthening the nation’s economy should be a top priority for the president and Congress in the coming year. By contrast, partisan differences over the importance of other domestic issues — such as dealing with global warming, helping the poor and providing health insurance to the uninsured — have all increased substantially over the past year.

As President Bush prepares for his final State of the Union address on Jan. 28, opinions about his administration’s legacy, already fairly negative, have declined further. Fully 59% say the Bush administration’s failures will outweigh its accomplishments, while just 28% believe the Bush administration will be remembered more for its accomplishments. A year ago, a smaller majority (53%) believed the administration’s failures would be more enduring than its successes.

The annual survey on the public’s policy agenda shows that substantially more Republicans and independents view strengthening the economy as a top priority than did so in January 2007. Partisan differences over the importance of bolstering the nation’s economy, which were fairly sizable at the start of last year, have disappeared.

However, far fewer Republicans rate dealing with global warming, expanding access to health insurance and helping the poor as top concerns — and partisan disagreements over the importance of those issues have increased considerably. Only about a quarter of Republicans (27%) say that providing health insurance to the uninsured should be a top priority, down 17 points from January 2007. More than twice as many Democrats (65%) and independents (58%) now rate this as a major policy goal.

There is a similar pattern in views about the importance of dealing with the problems of the poor and global warming. A year ago, global warming was the lowest-ranking agenda item for Republicans of 23 issues mentioned; just 23% viewed it as a top priority. This year, it has fallen even further — just 12% of Republicans cite global warming as a top priority, less than half the proportion naming the next lowest rated issue (27% for providing health insurance to the uninsured).

Democrats currently are about four times more likely than Republicans to rate global warming as a major priority (47% vs. 12%), a much greater gap than in January 2007 (48% Democrat vs. 23% Republican).

The latest survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Jan. 9-13 among 1,515 adults, finds signs of considerable unease with the nation’s economy. In the survey, conducted before this week’s stock market fluctuations, just 26% rate the economy as excellent or good, while 73% say it is only fair or poor.

While opinions about the economy have not declined since fall, they are the most negative economic ratings at the beginning of any presidential year since 1992. In January 2004, 37% had a positive view of the economy, while 63% expressed a negative opinion.

Most Important Problem

Economic problems now top the public’s list of national concerns, with roughly one-in-three (34%) citing economic problems as the nation’s most grave, compared with 27% who say the war in Iraq is the biggest problem facing the nation. This represents a reversal from a year ago, when 42% cited Iraq as the most important problem in the wake of Bush’s proposal to increase the number of troops there. As recently as September, 37% of Americans cited Iraq as the nation’s biggest problem, nearly double the 20% who cited economic problems. But current views are more in line with public opinion in 2005 and 2006, when roughly equal numbers cited economic concerns and Iraq as the nation’s biggest problem.

Democrats remain more likely than Republicans to cite the economy as the nation’s greatest problem. Nearly four-in-ten Democrats (39%) list an economic concern, compared with 27% of Republicans. Democrats are also substantially more concerned about Iraq than are Republicans (36% vs. 21%). By contrast, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to name immigration, terrorism and national security as the biggest problems.

While the number of Americans citing the economy as the nation’s largest problem has increased in the past year, it is far from a record high, even in the post-Iraq era. Over the past two decades, 1992 still represents the peak public concern about the economy. In January of that year fully 76% cited an economic problem as the most important facing the nation. But a more recent peak occurred in the spring of 2003 — just a month after U.S. forces invaded Iraq. In April of 2003, 41% of Americans saw the economy as the nation’s biggest problem, while just 14% cited the situation in Iraq.

Top Priorities: Economy, Terrorism

Strengthening the economy and defending the country against terrorism lead the public’s list of policy priorities for the president and Congress in the coming year. Fully three-quarters of Americans (75%) rate strengthening the economy as a major priority, up from 68% a year ago.

Notably, much of the increased emphasis on the economy comes from upper socioeconomic groups — college graduates and people with relatively high annual household incomes, as well from Republicans and independents.

Three-quarters (75%) of college graduates now see the economy as a major priority, up sharply from 54% in January 2007. The shift has been just as large among people with household incomes of at least $75,000 annually (20 points). As a consequence, the substantial educational and income differences over the importance of the economy as a policy priority also have disappeared.

Terrorism has declined somewhat as a leading policy priority over the past year, though it still ranks at the top of the public’s agenda. Nearly three-quarters of Americans (74%) view defending the country from future terrorist attacks as a top priority, down from 80% in January 2007. The current measure is on par with the percentage rating terrorism as a top priority in January 2005 (75%). Terrorism has declined as a priority among independents (from 77% to 65%) and Republicans (from 93% to 86%). About the same percentage of Democrats view defending against terrorism as a top priority as did so a year ago (74% then, 75% now).

Among other issues, reducing crime has declined as a top policy priority for the president and Congress; 54% rate crime reduction as a top priority, down from 62% a year ago. At the same time, somewhat more Americans view reducing the budget deficit as a top priority than did so in January 2007 (58% now, 53% then). Currently, more Americans view reducing the budget deficit as a top priority than at any point since January 1997 (60%).

Dueling Agendas

Compared with Republicans, Democrats place much greater emphasis on jobs, health care, education, the environment, and the poor. On jobs, for instance, 76% of Democrats but just 43% of Republicans say it should be a top priority for the president and Congress. Somewhat higher proportions in each party rate jobs as a top priority than did so in January 2007 (67% of Democrats, 39% of Republicans).

Notably, 81% of Democrats say that reducing health care costs should be a top
priority for policymakers — the highest percentage for any issue mentioned. Only about half of Republicans (53%) view this as a major priority.

Republicans place greater priority on defending the U.S. against terrorism (86%, vs. 74% for Democrats), dealing with the issue of illegal immigration (64% vs. 43%), and strengthening the military (62% vs. 37%). For Republicans, illegal immigration ranks as the third leading priority, after terrorism and the economy. However, while illegal immigration has been a major issue in the GOP’s primary campaign, slightly fewer Republicans rate this as a top priority than in January 2007 (64% now vs. 69% then).

At the same time, reducing the influence of lobbyists and special interest groups in Washington is now a much higher priority among Republicans than it was in January 2007. Roughly four-in-ten Republicans (42%) say that reducing the influence of lobbyists and special interests should be a top priority, up from 28% a year ago. Republicans are now somewhat more likely than Democrats to rate this as a major priority; last year, a higher percentage of Democrats than Republicans said that reining in special interests should be a top priority.

There is little or no partisan difference on two other issues: 37% of Democrats and Republicans say that dealing with global trade should be a top priority, and about half of each group (46% of Republicans and 50% of Democrats) would make a top priority of reducing middle class taxes.

Economic Worries Now Cross Party Lines

Economic ratings today are somewhat more negative than they were a year ago, and down even more compared with the latter half of 2006. (However, this poll was conducted prior to the sharp decline in the international equity markets earlier this week). Barely one-quarter of Americans (26%) give the economy a good or excellent rating, and 73% say it’s in fair or poor shape. Majorities have not given the economy a positive rating since 2000.

Still, economic ratings today are well above where they were at this point in the election cycle in 1992. In that year, just 12% rated the economy as either excellent or good, and fully 41% said that it was in poor shape.

More people assess their own financial situation positively than do so for the nation’s economy. Currently about half (49%) say their finances are in excellent or good shape, and an equal number say their finances are in only fair or poor shape. In comparison with national ratings, personal financial ratings have changed relatively little over the past several years. Most people say that they expect their personal finances to improve at least “some” over the next year, a pattern that has been true for at least 15 years.

There continues to be a sizable partisan gap in ratings of the national economy. Currently, 46% of Republicans, but just 24% of independents and 15% of Democrats, give the economy at least a good rating. During the 1990s, partisan differences on this question were relatively small and inconsistent in direction. Beginning in 2002, a substantial party divide opened up on the question and Democrats and Republicans have remained far apart in their assessments ever since.

However, the party gap has narrowed somewhat, as increasing numbers of moderate and liberal Republicans express negative views of the economy. Over the past four years, conservative Republicans have been more positive about the economy than their moderate and liberal counterparts, but the size of this gap has grown. Currently just 29% of moderate-to-liberal Republicans rate the economy positively; by contrast, a small majority of conservative Republicans (54%) still do so.

Bush Administration’s Legacy

As he begins his final year in office, President Bush’s standing with the public continues to worsen. While his overall job approval ratings are holding steady, the balance of opinion is roughly two-to-one negative (31% approve, 59% disapprove). And the number of Americans — including many within the president’s own party — who see the failures of his administration outweighing the accomplishments continues to rise, and a record high number say this year’s State of the Union address is less important than in past years.

A 59% majority of Americans believe that, in the long run, the failures of the Bush administration will outweigh the accomplishments, up from 53% a year ago. Half as many (28%) say Bush’s accomplishments will outweigh his failures. By comparison, in January 2004 — at the outset of Bush’s re-election campaign — more saw the administrations accomplishments carrying more weight (49%) than its failures (36%).

This dour view of the Bush presidency stands in contrast to public sentiment at the same point in Bill Clinton’s presidency. In January of 2000, 51% felt the Clinton administrations main legacy would be its accomplishments, while just 37% said the failures would stand out.

At the time, a quarter of Republicans felt that Clinton’s legacy would be positive, compared with just 9% of Democrats who say the same about Bush today. And fewer Republicans today (62%) see Bush’s accomplishments standing out compared with Democrats in 2000 (75%). Yet the most striking difference in views of the two presidents’ legacies is among independents. In January 2000, a majority of independents (53%) said that Clinton’s legacy would be marked by his administration’s accomplishments.

Today, by a 64% to 23% margin, most independents say Bush’s legacy will be marked by his administration’s failures.

Conservative Republicans continue to say that Bush’s long-term legacy will be positive — 71% say the administration’s accomplishments will outweigh the failures. But among moderate and liberal Republicans — who make up roughly a third of the party — just 44% believe Bush’s accomplishments will stand out, while about the same number (43%) say the administration’s failures will stand out. This is a sharp departure from a year ago, when moderate and liberal Republicans were just as upbeat about Bush’s legacy as conservative Republicans were.

Bush’s Final State of the Union Address

More than a quarter of Americans (27%) say this year’s State of the Union address is less important than those in the past. A year ago, in the wake of Bush’s major speech outlining the troop surge in Iraq, just 16% saw the 2007 State of the Union address as less important than those in past years, while 32% said it was more important.

The modest anticipation for this year’s address stands in stark contrast to public assessments of Bush’s first two State of the Union speeches, in 2002 and 2003. Majorities in both years said those addresses were more important than in previous years. But low level of interest in a president’s final State of the Union address is hardly unprecedented. In the weeks before Bill Clinton’s final address to Congress and the nation in 2000, just 16% rated it as more important than usual, while 22% said it was less important.

Most Favor Focus on Domestic Issues

Last year amid growing concerns about the war in Iraq, the public was divided over whether President Bush should focus more on domestic or foreign policy. This year, with rising concerns about the economy and the war in Iraq no longer dominating the news, a solid majority of 56% says that the president’s focus should be on domestic policy; just 31% say foreign policy is more important. Republicans are divided on this question, with as many favoring a foreign focus as a domestic one, but Democrats and independents overwhelmingly want domestic policy to be the focus.

When the choice is posed as domestic policy or the war on terrorism — as opposed to foreign policy more generally — domestic policy is still the preferred focus, but only by a plurality (46% domestic policy vs. 38% war on terrorism).