(TND) — Americans want Washington to prioritize strengthening the economy.
That ranked as the top issue in a fresh survey from the Pew Research Center.
Lowering health care costs, defending against terrorism, and reducing the influence of money in politics rounded out the top of the list.
Reducing the budget deficit was a big riser from last year, with 57% saying it should be a top priority for Congress and the president. That’s up from 45% last year.
And concerns over the coronavirus have plummeted, with just 26% saying it should be a top priority – down from 60% last year and 78% two years ago.
The economy has been seen as the top priority for three years running.
“The economy is always No. 1 and always will be No. 1, and that is not surprising at all,” said Todd Belt, Political Management program director at George Washington University.
Seventy-five percent of respondents in the late-January survey said the economy should be a priority for lawmakers. Reducing health care costs and defending against terrorism tied for second-highest priority with 60% each.
“The irony is the economy itself is actually doing relatively well,” said Stephan Weiler, an economist with Colorado State University.
Weiler said it’s likely people were focused on inflation when responding to the survey.
Inflation has a way of hitting you right in the face,” he said. “And I think that when they're talking about the economy, they're not talking about (the) job market. They're talking about inflation.”
Weiler said last week’s jobs report, which showed the economy added 517,000 jobs in January, “just blew people away.”
He said the public has a “malaise” about the economy, but everything remains surprisingly strong in light of the Federal Reserve’s continued pressure on high inflation.
The Fed is expected to implement another quarter-point rate hike in March. The hope is that it will end the interest rate increases and that inflation continues to cool.
“In terms of strengthening, I think you've done everything you can from the monetary side,” Weiler said.
Big-spending legislation, such as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, both “boosted the economy and probably inflation to a certain degree,” Weiler said.
Lawmakers should now focus on “housekeeping,” such as reducing bureaucracy, for the long-term health of the economy, Weiler said.
"I would be careful about doing too much fiscal spending because it's clear that the economy is really hot," Weiler said. "And there's no reason to shovel more coal onto that fire."
The Pew Research Center included 21 topics in its survey.
Belt noted the absence of abortion as a topic.
A previous Pew Research Center survey found 62% support legal abortion.
He also said that immigration, which was the 10th-highest priority in the survey, was lower than he would’ve expected.
Immigration is also one of the issues with the biggest partisan gaps. It’s a top priority for 70% of Republicans but only 37% of Democrats.
Belt said Republican lawmakers have made immigration one of their key issues, but they seem to be “preaching to the choir.”
“They’re not really getting as much traction on that issue as they probably think they should be,” Belt said.
Republicans would be wise to pivot from immigration to more “kitchen table” issues, like the economy and health care costs.
He said Democrats can also campaign on driving down health care costs.
“There are a lot of things that were going to go into the Inflation Reduction Act when it was called ‘Build Back Better’ that directly dealt with some of these things,” he said. “And I think that's one of the things that Democrats can say to the American voters, ‘Well, we got half of it done. Send us back to get the rest of it for you.’”
Other issues with wide partisan gaps are protecting the environment, dealing with global climate change, addressing issues around race, and dealing with problems of poor people.
Democrats place a higher priority on each of those.
Republicans are more concerned than Democrats with strengthening the military, reducing crime, and reducing the budget deficit.
Older people place a higher priority on dealing with immigration and terrorism.
Younger adults place a higher priority on improving the educational system, improving the job situation, and protecting the environment.
COVID-19 is no longer the concern it once was.
Dealing with the virus ranked as the lowest priority among the issues in this year’s survey after being near the top each of the previous two years.
“It is not where we were a year ago, and appropriately so,” said virologist Paula Cannon.
She said COVID has entered a new phase, thanks to widespread immunity and “game-changer” antivirals.
“Coronavirus hasn't done anything magical,” said Cannon, with the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “It's going by the playbook of these seasonal endemic respiratory infections.”
People responding to the survey were probably thinking in terms of “acute pandemic mode,” she said.
Cannon said she expects seasonal waves of the virus, and she wants people to get annual boosters “to keep this hard-won herd immunity intact.”
The government should still work to protect people from COVID, but it doesn’t need to stay in the spotlight, she said.
“I think if you said to people, ‘Should preventing people getting influenza be a top priority for the government?’ People would say no. But if you said to people, ‘Should the government stop giving a s*** about influenza and stop encouraging a booster and ... allow flu to just run riot?’ People would be like, ‘Hell, no,’” she continued. “So, coronavirus management now has to go into a different phase where it'll be a little bit more behind the scenes. And it will still need some funding to do that.”