A decade ago, in January 2001, the public’s policy agenda was very different. Then as now, strengthening the economy ranked at the top, but it was followed closely by improving education, reducing crime, and securing Social Security and Medicare. Improving the job situation ranked eighth among 11 policy priorities listed.

Today, the economy and jobs are the leading priorities, followed by defending the country against terrorism (73% top priority). Terrorism has been at or near the top of the annual priorities list since it was first included in 2002.

Reducing the budget deficit, or national debt, rated as a top policy priority during the 1990s, declined in importance in the early part of this decade, and has made a comeback in recent years. In January 2002, four months after the 9/11 attacks, just 35% said that reducing the budget deficit should be a top policy priority for President Bush and Congress.

By the beginning of Bush’s second term, in January 2005, 56% said that reducing the budget deficit should be a top priority. In January 2009, shortly before Obama took office, 53% rated the deficit as a top priority. That increased to 60% last year and 64% in the new survey. Currently, about as many rate the deficit as a top priority as did so in December 1994 (65%), at the end of Bill Clinton’s second year in office.

Deficit an Out-of-Power Concern?

Typically, members of the party that does not hold the White House view reducing the deficit as a more important priority than do members of the president’s party. This pattern was particularly evident during the Bush administration.

From 2002 to 2008, substantially more Democrats than Republicans rated reducing the budget deficit as a top priority. On several occasions during the Clinton administration, more Republicans than Democrats said that reducing the deficit – or paying off the national debt — was a top priority.

In the new survey, 68% of Republicans and 61% of Democrats see reducing the budget deficit as a top policy priority (this difference is not statistically significant). While deficit reduction ranks fifth among Republicans, it is the 9th-ranking priority for Democrats.

Crime Declines as Public Priority

With declining crime rates, the proportion saying that reducing crime should be a top national priority has fallen dramatically.

The percentage rating crime as a major priority fell nearly 30 points – from 76% to 47%– between 2001 and 2003. But these percentages subsequently increased – to 53% in 2004 and 2005, and 62% in 2006 and 2007. Since January 2007, the proportion saying that crime should be a top priority for the president and Congress has fallen by 18 points to 44%.

Compared with a decade ago, there has been an across-the-board decline in the percentage viewing crime as a major priority. However, as was the case in 2001, poor people and less-educated people are far more likely to rate crime as a top policy priority than are better educated and more affluent people.

More than half of those with no more than a high school education (58%) and those with family incomes of less than $30,000 (54%) say that reducing crime should be a top priority. That compares with just 27% of college graduates and an identical percentage of those with family incomes of $75,000 or more. Notably, these gaps were about as wide in 2001, when overall concern over crime was much greater.

Persistent Partisan Differences over Priorities

Roughly four-in-ten Democrats (41%) say that dealing with global warming should be a top priority for the president and Congress, compared with 29% of independents and just 10% of Republicans. The wide partisan gap over the importance of dealing with global warming is not new – it was approximately as large in 2010 and 2009.

Democrats also are far more likely to view reducing health care costs (28-point partisan gap), dealing with the problems of the poor (26 points), protecting the environment (24 points), and improving the educational system (23 points) as top priorities than are Republicans. These differences also are in line with previous policy priority surveys.

Improving the nation’s roads, bridges, and transportation does not rank as a particularly high priority for Democrats, Republicans or independents. Still, Democrats are more likely to see this as important (41% top priority vs. 30% of independents, 26% of Republicans. This is the case for dealing with obesity as well.

As in previous surveys, dealing with illegal immigration is a much higher priority for Republicans (61%) than for independents (47%) or Democrats (33%). There are more modest differences (11-point partisan gap) over defending the country from future terrorist attacks. These differences also are little changed from previous years.