EDITOR NOTE: “Now that we’ve got a Democrat in the White House, we can expect our national debt to rise significantly, accelerating the nation’s economic demise.” It’s easy to assume such a thing. Besides, Biden was part of the Obama administration which increased our debt “dollar-wise” more than any other president. But that’s where most are wrong. Despite the largest dollar rise in debt, Obama was ranked fifth among presidents who ballooned our national debt. How did the nation’s debt fare with regard to presidential administration? You might be surprised. It doesn’t seem like any president is looking to reduce our debt any time soon. Judging by the trend, all looks downward from here. If you’re not hedging your money with non-CUSIP gold and silver, then you’re taking your chances in allowing your purchasing power to be significantly reduced. Save your wealth; save your financial future. Don’t rely on the dollar, the Fed, or any messainic political figure--the latter sounding ridiculous, if it weren’t for Americans demonstrating such “politico-religious” ferocity over the last few years--a sign not of patriotism, but of sheer economic desperation.
What's the best way to determine how much each president has contributed to our nation's nearly $27 trillion in U.S. debt? The most popular ways to do so involve comparing the debt level from when a president enters office to the debt level when they leave, and comparing the debt as a percentage of economic output, which takes into account the size of the economy at the time the administration accumulated the debt.1 2
Debt Calculation Drawbacks
Neither of the techniques mentioned above are very accurate ways to measure each president's debt because the president doesn't have much control over the debt added during their first year in office.
For example, President Donald Trump took office in January 2017. He submitted his first budget in May. It covered the 2018 fiscal year, which didn't begin until October 1, 2017. Trump operated the first part of his term under President Barack Obama's budget for fiscal year 2017, which continued until September 30, 2017.3
While the time lag makes it seem confusing, Congress intentionally set it up this way. An advantage of the federal fiscal year is that it gives the new president time to put together their budget during his first months in office.
The Best Way to Measure Debt by President
The best way to measure a president's debt is to add up their budget deficits and compare that total to the debt level when they took office. A president's budget reveals their administration's priorities. The deficit by president reveals how much deficit was in each year's budget.
Though they sound similar, a deficit and debt are two different things. A deficit is a budget shortfall, whereas debt is the running total of deficits and surpluses.
The Top Five Debt Contributors by Percentage
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945): President Roosevelt had the largest percentage increase to the debt. Although he only added $236 billion, this was a nearly 1,050% increase from the $22.5 billion debt level left by President Herbert Hoover. The Great Depression and the New Deal contributed to FDR's yearly deficits, but the biggest cost was World War II: It added $186.3 billion to the debt between 1942 and 1945.4
Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921): President Wilson was the second-largest contributor to the debt, percentage-wise. He added $21 billion, which was a 724% increase over the $2.9 billion debt of his predecessor. World War I contributed to the deficits that raised the national debt.5
Ronald Reagan (1981-1989): President Reagan increased the debt by $1.85 trillion, or by 186%. Reagan's brand of supply-side economics didn't grow the economy enough to offset the lost revenue from its tax cuts. Reagan also increased the defense budget by 35%.6
George W. Bush (2001-2009): President Bush added $6.1 trillion, or a 101% increase, putting him in fourth. Bush launched the War on Terror in response to the 9/11 attacks, which led to multi-trillion-dollar spending on the War in Afghanistan and the Iraq War.Bush also dealt with the 2001 recession and the 2008 financial crisis.7
Barack Obama (2009-2017): Under President Obama, the national debt grew the most dollar-wise ($8.6 trillion) but was fifth in terms of percentage: 74%. Obama fought the Great Recession with an $831 billion economic stimulus package and added $858 billion through tax cuts.
U.S. Debt Increase by President for Every Fiscal Year Since 1914
The U.S. Treasury Department has historical tables that report the annual U.S. debt for each fiscal year since 1790.5 We've complied data from that source to create the figures used below.
Donald Trump: As of the end of FY 2020, the debt was $26.9 trillion. Trump added $6.7 trillion to the debt since Obama's last budget, a 33.1% increase due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) predicted that the pandemic would raise the FY 2020 deficit by $2.2 trillion and the FY 2021 deficit by $0.6 trillion. In his FY 2021 budget, Trump's budget includes a $1.566 trillion deficit, representing a projected 5.8% increase over 2020.
- FY 2020 - $4.226 trillion
- FY 2019 - $1.563 trillion
- FY 2018 - $1.272 trillion
Barack Obama: Added $8.588 trillion, a 73.6% increase from the $11.657 trillion debt at the end of Bush’s last budget in 2009.
- FY 2017 - $671 billion
- FY 2016 - $1.423 trillion
- FY 2015 - $326 billion
- FY 2014 - $1.086 trillion
- FY 2013 - $672 billion
- FY 2012 - $1.276 trillion
- FY 2011 - $1.229 trillion
- FY 2010 - $1.652 trillion
- FY 2009 - $253 billion. Congress passed the Economic Stimulus Act, which spent $253 billion.
George W. Bush: Added $5.849 trillion, a 101% increase from the $5.8 trillion debt at the end of Clinton's last budget, FY 2001.
- FY 2009 - $1.632 trillion. This was Bush's deficit without the impact of the Economic Stimulus Act.
- FY 2008 - $1.017 trillion
- FY 2007 - $501 billion
- FY 2006 - $574 billion
- FY 2005 - $553 billion
- FY 2004 - $596 billion
- FY 2003 - $555 billion
- FY 2002 - $421 billion
Bill Clinton: Added $1.396 trillion, a 31.6% increase from the $4.4 trillion debt at the end of George H.W. Bush's last budget.
- FY 2001 - $133 billion
- FY 2000 - $18 billion
- FY 1999 - $130 billion
- FY 1998 - $113 billion
- FY 1997 - $189 billion
- FY 1996 - $251 billion
- FY 1995 - $281 billion
- FY 1994 - $281 billion
George H.W. Bush: Added $1.554 trillion, a 54% increase from the $2.857 trillion debt at the end of Reagan's last budge.
- FY 1993 - $347 billion
- FY 1992 - $399 billion
- FY 1991 - $432 billion
- FY 1990 - $376 billion
Ronald Reagan: Added $1.86 trillion, a 186% increase from the $997.8 billion debt at the end of Carter's last budget.
- FY 1989 - $255 billion
- FY 1988 - $252 billion
- FY 1987 - $225 billion
- FY 1986 - $302 billion
- FY 1985 - $251 billion
- FY 1984 - $195 billion
- FY 1983 - $235 billion
- FY 1982 - $145 billion
Jimmy Carter: Added $299 billion, a 42.7% increase from the $698.8 billion debt at the end of Ford's last budget.
- FY 1981 - $90.1 billion
- FY 1980 - $81.1 billion
- FY 1979 - $54.9 billion
- FY 1978 - $72.7 billion
Gerald Ford: Added $223.7 billion, a 47.1% increase from the $475 billion debt at the end of Nixon's last budget.
- FY 1977 - $78.4 billion
- FY 1976 - $87.2 billion
- FY 1975 - $58.1 billion
Richard Nixon: Added $121.3 billion, a 34.3% increase from the $353.7 billion debt at the end of President Johnson's last budget.
- FY 1974 - $16.9 billion
- FY 1973 - $30.8 billion
- FY 1972 - $29.1 billion
- FY 1971 - $27.2 billion
- FY 1970 - $17.1 billion
Lyndon B. Johnson: Added $42 billion, a 13% increase from the $312 billion debt at the end of President Kennedy's last budget, FY 1964.
- FY 1969 - $6.1 billion
- FY 1968 - $21.3 billion
- FY 1967 - $6.3 billion
- FY 1966 - $2.6 billion
- FY 1965 - $5.5 billion
John F. Kennedy: Added $23 billion, an 7.8% increase from the $288.9 billion debt at the end of Eisenhower's last budget.
- FY 1964 - $5.8 billion
- FY 1963 - $7.6 billion
- FY 1962 - $9.2 billion
Dwight Eisenhower: Added $22.8 billion, a 8.6% increase from the $266 billion debt at the end of Truman's last budget.
- FY 1961 - $2.6 billion
- FY 1960 - $1.6 billion
- FY 1959 - $8.3 billion
- FY 1958 - $5.8 billion
- FY 1957 - $2.2 billion surplus
- FY 1956 - $1.6 billion surplus
- FY 1955 - $3.1 billion
- FY 1954 - $5.1 billion
Harry Truman: Added $7.3 billion, a 2.8% increase from the $258.6 billion debt at the end of President Roosevelt’s last budget.
- FY 1953 - $6.9 billion
- FY 1952 - $3.8 billion
- FY 1951 - $2.1 billion surplus
- FY 1950 - $4.5 billion
- FY 1949 - $478 million surplus
- FY 1948 - $6 billion surplus
- FY 1947 - $11 billion surplus
- FY 1946 - $10.7 billion
Franklin D. Roosevelt: Added $236 billion, a 1,048% increase from the $22.5 billion debt at the end of Hoover's last budget.
- FY 1945 - $57.6 billion
- FY 1944 - $64.3 billion
- FY 1943 - $64.2 billion
- FY 1942 - $23.4 billion
- FY 1941 - $6 billion
- FY 1940 - $2.5 billion
- FY 1939 - $3.2 billion
- FY 1938 - $740 million
- FY 1937 - $2.6 billion
- FY 1936 - $5 billion
- FY 1935 - $1.6 billion
- FY 1934 - $4.5 billion
Herbert Hoover: Added $5.6 billion, a 33% increase from the $17 billion debt at the end of Coolidge's last budget.
- FY 1933 - $3 billion
- FY 1932 - $2.8 billion
- FY 1931 - $616 million
- FY 1930 - $746 million surplus
Calvin Coolidge: Subtracted $5.2 billion from the debt, a roughly 24% decrease from the $22 billion debt at the end of Harding's last budget.
- FY 1929 - $673 billion surplus
- FY 1928 - $907 million surplus
- FY 1927 - $1.1 billion surplus
- FY 1926 - $873 million surplus
- FY 1925 - $734 million surplus
- FY 1924 - $1 billion surplus
Warren G. Harding: Subtracted $1.6 billion from the debt, a 6.6% decrease from the $24 billion debt at the end of Wilson's last budget.
- FY 1923 - $614 million surplus
- FY 1922 - $1 billion surplus
Woodrow Wilson: Added $21 billion to the debt, a 722% increase from the $2.9 billion debt at the end of Taft's last budget, FY 1913.
- FY 1921 - $1.9 billion surplus
- FY 1920 - $1.4 billion surplus
- FY 1919 - $12.8 billion
- FY 1918 - $9.8 billion
- FY 1917 - $2.1 billion
- FY 1916 - $551 million
- FY 1915 - $146 million
- FY 1914 - $0 (slight surplus)
All presidents from 1790 to 1913: $2.9 billion debt created.
Originally posted on The Balance