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Economy tops U.S. poll of public policy priorities

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Strengthening the U.S. economy and improving the job situation are the top domestic political priorities of Americans, according to a poll released on Monday.

The poll by the non-partisan Pew Research Center for the People & the Press indicated that defending the country from terrorism ranked third, followed by fixing the Social Security retirement program.

It indicated a waning interest in healthcare reform, the subject which dominated much of the political discourse in the last six months and which has been a major priority of President Barack Obama.

With Obama entering his second year in office, the poll found that the public's leading concerns had changed little since January 2009, when the same four issues topped the list of results, in the same order.

"The public's priorities for the president and Congress remain much as they were one year ago," the center said.

The top four issues -- economy, jobs, terrorism and Social Security -- were the only ones, of 21 issues surveyed, to be chosen as top concerns by two-thirds or more of respondents.

Fifth on the list again this year was "improving the educational system," a top concern for 65 percent of those polled, up from 61 percent a year ago.

Healthcare-related issues, after months of inconclusive debate in Congress, lost more ground than they gained.

The center said 63 percent listed securing Medicare, the government-run program for the elderly, as a top concern, up from 60 percent a year ago.

But "reducing health care costs" slipped to 57 percent from 59 percent, while "providing health insurance to the uninsured" fell to 49 percent from 52 percent on the top concerns list.

"Notably, there is now a wider partisan gap in opinion about this issue than for any of the other 20 issues in the survey," said the Pew center, regarding the uninsured.

It said 75 percent of Democrats rated providing health insurance to the uninsured as a top priority, compared with just 26 percent of Republicans.

Falling well down in the rankings was "dealing with the U.S. energy problem," the Pew center said, based on its January 6-10 telephone survey of 1,504 adult Americans.

This month, 49 percent of those polled said that energy should be a top priority; a year ago, it was 60 percent.

Moving up sharply was the need to address the federal deficit, with 60 percent making it a top 2010 concern, versus 53 percent in 2009.

Tighter financial regulation -- another subject of protracted congressional debate -- was tagged as a high priority by 45 percent. The issue was not included in the 2009 survey.

(Reporting by Kevin Drawbaugh; Editing by David Storey)