Barack Obama

President Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio in this Feb. 12, 2013, file-pool photo, gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress. (Charles Dharapak / AP / pool photo / February 12, 2013)

WASHINGTON -- For the first time since President Obama took office, reducing the federal deficit has slipped as a priority for most Americans, particularly his fellow Democrats, according to a new in-depth study of public attitudes.

That shift corresponds with the president’s view. In his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, aides say Obama is likely to point to the rapid shrinking of the deficit, particularly over the last year, and suggest that other agenda items, such as improving education and investing in scientific research and the nation’s roads and bridges, should take a higher priority.

In the first quarter of the government’s current budget year, the deficit was 40% lower than in the same period a year earlier, and many economists think that for at least the current year, a slightly higher deficit would be better for the economy.

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Any call to put deficit reduction on a back burner likely will bring a favorable reaction from Democrats, judging by new data from the Pew Research Center. Fewer than half of Democrats now see further deficit cutting as a top priority, a sharp drop from last year, Pew’s annual survey of public priorities showed. Deficit reduction now ranks behind improving education, strengthening Social Security and protecting the environment as a priority for Democrats.

But as with so many other issues, a widening partisan gap divides self-identified Democrats and Republicans on the deficit issue. Fully 80% of Republicans rate further deficit reduction as a top priority, essentially tying it for first place, along with combating terrorism, on their priority list.

The differing views of the deficit have had a clear impact on Congress. Republican lawmakers, for example, have insisted that any move to extend unemployment benefits for people who have been jobless for more than 26 weeks must be paid with cuts elsewhere in the government, rather than added to the deficit. Democrats have proposed offsetting the higher spending this year with cuts that would not take effect for several years down the road.

On both sides of the partisan divide, strengthening the economy remains high on the priority list and has been the top subject for the public overall since 2008. Improving the outlook for jobs and combating terrorism are two other priorities that garner broad public agreement.

By contrast, the gap between Democrats and Republicans over the importance of reducing the deficit is the largest in 20 years of Pew polling on the issue. Similarly large gaps exist on several other major subjects, including protecting the environment, “dealing with the problems of the poor and needy” and improving education, all of which Democrats rank much higher than Republicans, and “strengthening the U.S. military,” which is a top priority for the GOP, but not Democrats.

The percentage of Republicans who see helping the poor as a top issue has declined sharply, with just under one-third rating it as a chief priority. Almost half of Republicans rated it a top priority a year ago. Among Democrats, two-thirds rate the problems of the poor as a top priority.

On most subjects, the views of self-identified independents fall roughly in between those of Republicans and Democrats. But overall, the independents’ list of top priorities more closely resembles that of Democrats.

Two other issues that Obama is likely to mention in his State of the Union speech – global warming and international trade – remain more niche concerns, cited by fewer than one-third of the public as a top priority. Global warming is listed as a top issue by 42% of Democrats, but only 14% of Republicans.

As Obama prepares to lay out his own priorities, he continues to labor with a tepid level of public approval: 43% approve of his performance in office and 49% disapprove. Those figures are largely unchanged from last month but slightly better than in November.

The president continues to enjoy stronger marks on his personal favorability. Just over half the public, 51%, say they have a favorable impression of him, compared with 45% who view him unfavorably – ratings that are largely where they’ve been for most of the last two years.

But there, too, the polarization is striking. Only 8% of people who identified themselves as conservative Republicans said they had a favorable view of Obama, compared to 88% who see him unfavorably.

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First Lady Michelle Obama enjoys much broader popularity, with 68% seeing her positively and 24% negatively. Conservative Republicans hold a negative view of her, 29%-56%, although Republicans overall are closely split, with 42% favorable and 47% unfavorable.

The public’s view of the two parties gives Democrats several advantages, but not across the board.

Just over half the public, 52%, say the Democrats are the party more willing to work with the other side, compared with just over one-quarter, 27%, who give that nod to the Republicans. By similar margins, the public gives the edge to Democrats as the party more concerned “with the needs of people like me” (52%-32%) and less “extreme in its positions” (54%-35%). By 47%-30%, the public sees Republicans as “more influenced by lobbyists.”

On issues facing the country, Democrats get a nod from the public as best for handling healthcare (45%-37%, an improvement since September) and dealing with the problems of poverty (46%-33%).

Republicans have an edge on dealing with the deficit (45%-35%).

The public rates the two parties roughly even on dealing with the economy, taxes and immigration.

One other piece of public wisdom: By a large margin, Americans don’t expect relations between the parties to improve any time soon. In the survey, 6 in 10 say they expect partisan relations to stay about the same this year, 1 in 5 expect them get worse, and only about 1 in 6 expect an improvement.

The Pew survey was conducted Jan. 15-19 among a national sample of 1,504 adults. The margin of error is +/- 2.9 percentage points.

david.lauter@latimes.com

On Twitter @DavidLauter