Jobs and the economy were next, followed by the nation's debt and deficit spending.
Some issues that draw ample media and campaign attention rank lower in the public's priorities. No more than 3 percent of Americans listed gay rights, abortion or domestic spying as prime topics for government action.
Regardless of the issue, however, Americans express remarkably little confidence that the federal government can make real progress.
For instance, 86 percent of those who called health care reform a top priority said they want the government to put "a lot" or "a great deal" of effort into it. But about half of them (49 percent) are "not at all confident" there will be real progress, and 20 percent are only "slightly confident."
This yawning gap between public desires and expectations is one of the poll's most striking findings. Even on an issue completely within the federal government's control, the budget and national debt, 65 percent of those who called it a priority say they have no confidence in the government's ability to fix it. Another 20 percent are only "slightly confident."
When it comes to the issues people cited as most important to them, 80 percent want the government to spend significant effort working on them. Yet 76 percent say they have little or no confidence the government will make real progress.
But asked generally about the role of government in society, the AP-NORC Center poll finds Americans divided on how active they want government to be. Half say "the less government the better." However, almost as many (48 percent) say "there are more things that government should be doing."
On the economy, an area historically driven by the private sector, the poll finds a clear public desire for active government. Fifty-seven percent of Americans say "we need a strong government to handle today's complex economic problems."