US Debt by President by Dollar and Percent
Who Increased the U.S. Debt the Most? Depends on How You Measure It.
What's the best way to determine how much each president has contributed to our nation's $21 trillion in U.S. debt? The most popular method involves comparing the debt level from when a president enters office to the debt level when he leaves.
You can get a good visual representation using a graph showing the percentage of debt accumulated by each president. You can also compare the debt as a percentage of economic output. It's ironic that, as the debt has increased through the years, the value of presidents' salaries has decreased.
These aren't, however, very accurate ways to measure the debt created by each president. Why?
The president doesn't have much control over the debt added during his first year in office. The budget for that fiscal year was already set by the previous president.
For example, President Bush took office in January 2001. He submitted his first budget in February, but that covered Fiscal Year 2002, which didn't begin until October 1. For the first nine months of his new term, Bush had to live with President Clinton's last budget.
That was FY 2001, which continued until September 30, 2001. This timing difference explains why no new president is accountable for the budget deficit in his first year in office.
While the time lag makes it seem confusing, the federal fiscal year works that way to give the new president time to put together his budget during his first month in office.
The Best Way to Measure Debt by President
You can measure the debt by a president by summing up his budget deficits. The president is responsible for his budget priorities.
The deficit by president reveals how much deficit was in each year's budget.
The terminology sounds similar, but a difference exists between the deficit and the debt by a president. All presidents can employ a little sleight of hand to reduce the appearance of the deficit. For example, they can borrow from federal retirement funds.
More working people contributed via payroll taxes than retired people withdrew in benefits. The Fund invests its surplus in U.S. Treasury notes. The president can reduce the deficit by spending these funds instead of issuing new Treasury securities.
The Top Five Contributors by Percent
Franklin D. Roosevelt: Percentage-wise, President Roosevelt increased the debt by the largest amount. Although he only added $236 billion, this was a 1,048-percent increase from the $23 billion debt level left by President Herbert Hoover.
Of course, the Great Depression took an enormous bite out of revenues. The New Deal cost billions. But FDR's major contribution to the debt was World War II spending. He added $209 billion to the debt between 1942 and 1945.
Woodrow Wilson: President Wilson was the second-largest contributor to the debt percentage-wise. He added $21 billion, which was a 727 percent increase over the $2.9 billion debt of his predecessor. Wilson had to pay for World War I. During his presidency, the Second Liberty Bond Act gave Congress the right to adopt the national debt ceiling.
Ronald Reagan: President Reagan increased the debt by 186 percent. Reaganomics added $1.86 trillion. Reagan's brand of supply-side economics didn't grow the economy enough to offset the lost revenue from its tax cuts. That was partly because Reagan increased the defense budget by 35 percent.
George W. Bush: President Bush added $5.849 trillion, the second-greatest dollar amount. It was the fourth-largest percentage increase. Bush increased the debt by 101 percent from where it started at $5.8 trillion on September 30, 2001. That's the end of FY 2001, which was President Clinton's last budget.
Bush launched the War on Terror in response to the 9/11 attacks. The War on Terror included two wars. The War in Afghanistan cost $1 trillion and the Iraq War cost $807.5 billion. They increased military spending to record levels of $600 billion to $800 billion a year.
President Bush also responded to the 2001 recession by passing the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act and the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act. He approved a $700 billion bailout package for banks to combat the 2008 global financial crisis. Both Presidents Bush and Obama had to contend with higher mandatory spending for Social Security and Medicare.
Barack Obama: Under President Obama, the national debt grew the most dollar-wise. He added $8.588 trillion. This 74 percent increase was the fifth-largest. Obama's budgets included the economic stimulus package. It added $831 billion by cutting taxes, extending unemployment benefits, and funding public works projects.
The Obama tax cuts added $858 billion to the debt in two years. Obama's budget increased defense spending to between $700 billion and $800 billion a year. Federal income was down, thanks to lower tax receipts from the 2008 financial crisis. He also sponsored the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. It was designed to reduce the debt by $143 billion over 10 years. But these savings didn't show up until the later years.
U.S. Debt Increase by Fiscal Year Since 1960
The U.S. Treasury Department has historical tables that report the annual U.S. debt for each fiscal year since 1790. This data has been compiled for each president as detailed below.
Donald Trump: As projected in the FY 2019 budget, Trump plans to add $4.775 trillion, a 29-percent increase from the $20.245 trillion debt at the end of Obama's last budget for FY 2017.
Barack Obama: Added $8.588 trillion, a 74-percent increase from the $11.657 trillion debt at the end of Bush’s last budget, FY 2009.
- FY 2017 - $672 billion.
- FY 2016 - $1.423 trillion.
- FY 2015 - $327 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 in FY 2009. This rare occurrence should be added to President Obama's contribution to the debt.
George W. Bush: Added $5.849 trillion, a 101-percent increase from the $5.8 trillion debt at the end of Clinton's last budget, FY 2001.
Bill Clinton: Added $1.396 trillion, a 32-percent increase from the $4.4 trillion debt at the end of George H.W. Bush's last budget, FY 1993.
- FY 2001 - $133 billion.
- FY 2000 - $18 billion.
- FY 1999 - $130 billion.
- FY 1998 - $113 billion.
- FY 1997 - $188 billion.
- FY 1996 - $251 billion.
- FY 1995 - $281 billion.
- FY 1994 - $281 billion.
George H.W. Bush: Added $1.554 trillion, a 54-percent increase from the $2.857 trillion debt at the end of Reagan's last budget, FY 1989.
- FY 1993 - $347 billion.
- FY 1992 - $399 billion.
- FY 1991 - $432 billion.
- FY 1990 - $376 billion.
Ronald Reagan: Added $1.86 trillion, a 186-percent increase from the $998 billion debt at the end of Carter's last budget, FY 1981.
- FY 1989 - $255 billion.
- FY 1988 - $252 billion.
- FY 1987 - $225 billion.
- FY 1986 - $297 billion.
- FY 1985 - $256 billion.
- FY 1984 - $195 billion.
- FY 1983 - $235 billion.
- FY 1982 - $144 billion.
Jimmy Carter: Added $299 billion, a 43-percent increase from the $699 billion debt at the end of Ford's last budget, FY 1977.
- FY 1981 - $90 billion.
- FY 1980 - $81 billion.
- FY 1979 - $55 billion.
- FY 1978 - $73 billion.
Gerald Ford: Added $224 billion, a 47-percent increase from the $475 billion debt at the end of Nixon's last budget, FY 1974.
- FY 1977 - $78 billion.
- FY 1976 - $87 billion.
- FY 1975 - $58 billion.
Richard Nixon: Added $121 billion, a 34-percent increase from the $354 billion debt at the end of President Johnson's last budget, FY 1969.
- FY 1974 - $17 billion.
- FY 1973 - $31 billion.
- FY 1972 - $29 billion.
- FY 1971 - $27 billion.
- FY 1970 - $17 billion.
Lyndon B. Johnson: Added $42 billion, a 13-percent increase from the $312 billion debt at the end of President Kennedy's last budget, FY 1964.
- FY 1969 - $6 billion.
- FY 1968 - $21 billion.
- FY 1967 - $6 billion.
- FY 1966 - $3 billion.
- FY 1965 - $6 billion.
John F. Kennedy: Added $23 billion, an 8-percent increase from the $289 billion debt at the end of Eisenhower's last budget, FY 1961.
- FY 1964 - $6 billion.
- FY 1963 - $7 billion.
- FY 1962 - $10 billion.
Dwight Eisenhower: Added $23 billion, a 9-percent increase from the $266 billion debt at the end of Truman's last budget, FY 1953.
- FY 1961 - $3 billion.
- FY 1960 - $2 billion.
- FY 1959 - $8 billion.
- FY 1958 - $6 billion.
- FY 1957 - $2 billion surplus.
- FY 1956 - $2 billion surplus.
- FY 1955 - $3 billion.
- FY 1954 - $5 billion.
Harry Truman: Added $7 billion, a 3-percent increase from the $259 billion debt at the end of President Roosevelt’s last budget, FY 1945.
- FY 1953 - $7 billion.
- FY 1952 - $4 billion.
- FY 1951 - $2 billion surplus.
- FY 1950 - $5 billion.
- FY 1949 - slight surplus.
- FY 1948 - $6 billion surplus.
- FY 1947 - $11 billion surplus.
- FY 1946 - $11 billion.
Franklin D. Roosevelt: Added $236 billion, a 1,048-percent increase from the $23 billion debt at the end of Hoover's last budget, FY 1933.
- FY 1945 - $58 billion.
- FY 1944 - $64 billion.
- FY 1943 - $64 billion.
- FY 1942 - $23 billion.
- FY 1941 - $6 billion.
- FY 1940 - $3 billion.
- FY 1939 - $3 billion.
- FY 1938 - $1 billion.
- FY 1937 - $3 billion.
- FY 1936 - $5 billion.
- FY 1935 - $2 billion.
- FY 1934 - $5 billion.
Herbert Hoover: Added $6 billion, a 33-percent increase from the $17 billion debt at the end of Coolidge's last budget, FY 1929.
- FY 1933 - $3 billion.
- FY 1932 - $3 billion.
- FY 1931 - $1 billion.
- FY 1930 - $1 billion surplus.
Calvin Coolidge: Subtracted $5 billion from the debt, a 26-percent decrease from the $21 billion debt at the end of Harding's last budget, FY 1923.
- FY 1929 - $1 billion surplus.
- FY 1928 - $1 billion surplus.
- FY 1927 - $1 billion surplus.
- FY 1926 - $1 billion surplus.
- FY 1925 - $1 billion surplus.
- FY 1924 - $1 billion surplus.
Warren G. Harding: Subtracted $2 billion from the debt, a 7-percent decrease from the $24 billion debt at the end of Wilson's last budget, FY 1921.
- FY 1923 - $1 billion surplus.
- FY 1922 - $1 billion surplus.
Woodrow Wilson: Added $21 billion to the debt, a 727-percent increase from the $2.9 billion debt at the end of Taft's last budget, FY 1913.
- FY 1921 - $2 billion surplus.
- FY 1920 - $1 billion surplus.
- FY 1919 - $13 billion.
- FY 1918 - $9 billion.
- FY 1917 - $2 billion.
- FY 1916 - $1 billion.
- FY 1915 - $0 billion with a slight surplus.
- FY 1914 - $0 billion.
FY 1789 - FY 1913: $2.9 billion debt created.
Resources: Debt from 1929 to 2017: U.S. Treasury Historical Tables and U.S. Treasury, Debt to the Penny. Debt from 2018 to 2021: FY 2019 budget, Analytical Perspectives, Table 4-2. Federal Government Financing and Debt.