Foreign Policy Tops American Priorities!

A misleading survey result.

Memeorandum pointed me to the AP-NORC New Year’s Day report “2024: The public’s priorities and expectations.”

Foreign policy issues top the public’s agenda for 2024, followed by economic concerns. Education, the environment and climate change, and health care continue to be major concerns. Most Americans do not expect things to get better for themselves or the country in the upcoming year.

To explore the public’s agenda for 2024, The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research conducted a poll in December 2023, in which respondents provided up to five volunteered issues that they believe should be priorities for the federal government in 2024.

With ongoing wars in Ukraine and Gaza, foreign policy has risen to prominence as a major concern compared to previous years. And after several near misses of a government shutdown in 2023, the debt limit and government spending has become a major priority for 2024.

Democrats and Republicans cite immigration, other foreign policy issues, and inflation as a top priority, but their top issues diverge from there. Democrats are concerned about climate change and the environment, education, and health care reform, while Republicans put the economy in general and government debt in their top five.

While the public has a wide-ranging agenda for the federal government, they are not confident that it will be able to address these concerns. Seventy-one percent have little confidence in the ability of the federal government to make progress on important issues facing the country in 2024, including 40% who are not confident at all.

I was, to say the least, skeptical of the lede declaration, “Foreign policy issues top the public’s agenda for 2024.” With the exception of catastrophic events like the Vietnam War, 9/11, and maybe the Iraq War, Americans seldom care much about foreign policy issues.

I initially couldn’t find the link to the survey (which was “hidden” above the story) and looked at the linked AP report (“More Americans think foreign policy should be a top US priority for 2024, an AP-NORC poll finds“) to see if it offered more clues.

In this time of war overseas, more Americans think foreign policy should be a top focus for the U.S. government in 2024, with a new poll showing international concerns and immigration rising in importance with the public.

About 4 in 10 U.S. adults named foreign policy topics in an open-ended question that asked people to share up to five issues for the government to work on in the next year, according to a December poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

That’s about twice as many who mentioned the topic in the AP-NORC poll conducted last year.

Long-standing economic worries still overshadow other issues. But the new poll’s findings point to increased concern about U.S. involvement overseas — 20% voiced that sentiment in the poll, versus 5% a year ago.

It also shows that the Israeli-Hamas war is feeding public anxiety. The conflict was mentioned by 5%, while almost no one cited it a year ago. The issue has dominated geopolitics since Israel declared war on Hamas in Gaza after that group’s Oct. 7 attack on Israeli soil.

Four percent of U.S. adults mentioned the conflict between Russia and Ukraine as something for their government to focus on this year. That’s similar to the 6% who mentioned it at the end of 2022.

Foreign policy has gained importance among respondents from both parties. Some 46% of Republicans named it, up from 23% last year. And 34% of Democrats list foreign policy as a focal point, compared with 16% a year ago.

This is more illuminating. It wasn’t so much that foreign policy issues are top of mind but that there was variation from a very low baseline. That more people mentioned Israel-Gaza, which was a non-issue in the 2022 year-end survey, smack in the middle of a major war that just launched a few weeks ago is, well, not surprising.

In addition to a bevy of man-on-the-street quotes that are likely meaningless, the AP report also provides this graphic:

So . . . of the thirteen issues mentioned, the only foreign policy issue that made the list was “U.S. involvement overseas.” The other dozen are mostly domestic policy issues. (One could argue that immigration and climate change are intermestic, but the reason most people care about them is the domestic impact.)

Somehow, they have managed to combine issues into groups, giving “foreign policy” a 38% even though the sole foreign policy issue listed only registered at 20%. Still, that’s dwarfed by the 76% who cite economic issues. Indeed:

As to the “foreign policy” grouping, this anecdotal quote gives a hint:

Janet Brewer has lived all her life in San Diego, across from Tijuana, Mexico, and said the situation on the border has deteriorated in recent years.

“It’s a disaster,” said Brewer, 69, who works part time after running a secretarial and legal and medical transcription small business. “It’s crazy.”

The politics of foreign military aid and immigration policy are entangled, with President Joe Biden ‘s administration promoting a $110 billion package that includes aid for Ukraine and Israel that remains stalled in Congress while Republicans push for a deal allowing major changes in immigration policy and stricter enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Brewer said she wouldn’t vote for Biden or a Republican for president in 2024, and may opt for independent Robert F. Kennedy Jr. But she also questions whether a change in the White House would necessarily improve immigration policy.

As for foreign aid, she said: “I know that we need to help. But come on. We’ve done enough.”

Once I found the survey itself, I see that, indeed, immigration and border security was counted as a “foreign policy” issue:

Indeed, it accounted for the bulk of respondents who listed a “foreign policy” concern among their top issues (they were permitted up to five).

NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, formerly the National Opinion Research Center,* at the University of Chicago is a reputable polling outfit that’s been around since 1941. But it really strikes me as weird to code concerns about immigration as a foreign policy issue comparable to wars, great power competition, or even “world peace.” It’s not a concern about US-Mexico relations but one of nativism.


*It wasn’t easy to figure out what NORC stands for, as it’s nowhere on their own site. Oddly, the MacArthur Foundation had the information.

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DK says:

    “2024: Most Legacy Media Polling Analysis Still Trash”

    Thank you for this.

  2. gVOR10 says:

    Dang. I had mentally drafted, “Yeah right. /s” as a comment when I read the title, and now James won’t let me use it. So “foreign policy” = FOX/GOP driven border concerns. We knew that was a big deal last week. And Dems had better figure out what to do about it.

  3. Tony W says:

    At the risk of repeating myself, immigration is a domestic/business policy issue, not foreign policy.

    We decide how many foreigners we will import in order to keep wages low and bring in skills that we might be missing as a society. Violations of the immigration policy result in punishment only of the worker, not the company (and its officers) employing them.

  4. Matt says:

    “It’s a disaster,” said Brewer, 69, who works part time after running a secretarial and legal and medical transcription small business. “It’s crazy.”

    One of the “fun” things about living in Texas near the border would have to be all the people who insisted they knew more about what was going on where I lived than I did…