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Deficit by President

What Budget Deficits Don't Tell You About the Debt

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U.S. Debt by President

Presidents Bush and Obama two of the largest contributors to the U.S. debt.

Photo: Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images
President Ronald Reagan Photo

Reagan doubled the debt during his term.

Reagan Presidential Library

There's a lot of argument over which President ran the highest deficits, and contributed the most to the It's not as easy as you might think to determine how much deficit each President created. The easy way is to look at the deficit by year for the length of their terms.However, the President isn't responsible for the budget deficit that accrues for his first calendar year in office (January through December). That's because the budget for January through September 30 of that year was already set by the prior President. The Federal government's fiscal year (runs from October 1 through September 30.

Here's an example of how it works. President Bush submitted the FY 2009 budget to Congress in February 2008. Congress approved it, and it took effect October 1 2008. President Obama was elected in November 2008, and started office in January 2009. He had to live with President Bush's budget until his budget was approved and took effect October 1 2009.

This is also a rare example of how a President can add to the previous budget. Right after President Obama took office, the Dow dropped to 6,594.44 and sparked fears of the recession worsening. Obama got Congressional approval to pass the Economic Stimulus Act.  Congress authorized another $253 billion to be spent immediately, adding that amount to Bush's FY 2009 budget.

The Best Way to Measure Deficit by President:

Therefore, the most accurate way to measure the deficit by President is to sum all the budget deficits actually created in his budgets. That's because the budget puts the President's priorities into black and white. It measures the impact of spending and tax changes in dollars and cents. 

There are a few caveats, however. First, Congress does have an important role, since it must approve the budget. Each house of Congress prepares its own budget, and negotiates with the Executive Office to complete a budget each year. For more, see Who's Who in the Budget Process.

Second, each President inherits a lot of his predecessors' policies. For example, every President has had to compensate for lower revenue thanks to President Reagan's and President Bush's tax cuts. Presidents who raise taxes become very unpopular very quickly.

Third, while every President has had to deal with a recession, all recessions were not created equal. Furthermore, some Presidents have had to deal with unusual events, like the 9/11 terrorist attack and Hurricane Katrina. While these weren't part of the business cycle, they required responses that came with economic price tags.

Fourth, the deficit created by the Mandatory portion of the budget isn't created by the President. That's because the Mandatory budget is simply an estimate of what these programs will cost. They've already been approved by the Act of Congress that created the program. Unless the President can get Congress to remove or modify the program, he's got to live with that spending. The Mandatory budget includes Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, as well as TARP and the Affordable Care Act. Social Security and Medicare are usually the two biggest expenses any President has.

You probably know that each year's deficit is added to the debt. However, did you also know that the amount added to the debt each year is more than the deficit? That's because Presidents can "borrow" from the Social Security Trust Fund, and other parts of the government that are running a surplus. Find out How Much Each President Really Contributed to the Debt.

President Barack Obama:

President Obama has the largest deficits, totaling $5.073 trillion in just his first four years. Obama's budgets included the economic stimulus package, which added $787 billion by cutting taxes, extending unemployment benefits, and funding job-creating public works projects. The Obama tax cuts added $858 billion to the debt over two years. Obama's budget included increased defense spending to around $800 billion a year. Federal income was down,  a result of lower tax receipts from the 2008 financial crisis.

Both Presidents Bush and Obama had to contend with higher mandatory spending for Social Security and Medicare than their predecessors did. That's because health care costs were rising, and the American population was aging. Obama also sponsored the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which was designed to reduce the debt by $143 billion over 10 years. However, these savings don't show up until later years. For more, see National Debt Under Obama.

President George W. Bush:

President Bush is next, racking up $3.294 trillion over two terms. He responded to the attacks on 9/11 by launching the War on Terror. This drove military spending to a new records, between $600-$800 billion a year. President Bush also responded to the 2001 recession by passing EGTRRA and JGTRRA, otherwise known as the Bush tax cuts.

President Ronald Reagan:

President Reagan added $1.412 trillion in deficits during his two terms. He fought the 1982 recession by cutting the top income tax rate from 70% to 28%, and the corporate rate from 48% to 34%. He also increased government spending by 2.5% a year. This included a 35% increase in the defense budget, and an expansion of Medicare. Although $1.412 trillion doesn't sound like a lot, compared to 2012 debt levels, in fact Reagan's economic policies nearly doubled the debt during his Presidency.

President George H.W. Bush:

President George H.W. Bush racked up a $1.03 trillion deficit in one term. He responded to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait with Desert Storm. He oversaw the $125 billion bailout to end the 1989 Savings and Loan crisis. Part of his deficit was due to lost tax revenue from the 1991 recession.

Although most other Presidents ran deficits, none comes close to these four. Part of that is because the U.S. economy, as measured by GDP, was so much smaller for other Presidents. For example, in 1981 GDP was only $3 trillion, growing by five times to $15 trillion in 2012. See the table below for a year-by-year detail of each President's budget deficit since President Woodrow Wilson. (Updated October 18, 2013)

Budget Deficits by Fiscal Year Since 1960:

President Barack Obama: Total Deficits So Far = $5.073 trillion.

  • FY 2013 - $901 billion.
  • FY 2012 - $1.327 trillion.
  • FY 2011 - $1.299 trillion.
  • FY 2010 - $1.546 ($1.293 trillion plus $253 billion from the Obama Stimulus Act that was attached to the FY 2009 budget).
President George W. Bush: Total = $3.294 trillion.
  • FY 2009 - $1.16 trillion. ($1.416 trillion minus $253 billion from Obama's Stimulus Act)
  • FY 2008 - $458 billion.
  • FY 2007 - $161 billion.
  • FY 2006 - $248 billion.
  • FY 2005 - $318 billion.
  • FY 2004 - $413 billion.
  • FY 2003 - $378 billion.
  • FY 2002 - $158 billion.
President Bill Clinton: Total = $63 billion surplus.
  • FY 2001 - $128 billion surplus.
  • FY 2000 - $236 billion surplus.
  • FY 1999 - $126 billion surplus.
  • FY 1998 - $69 billion surplus.
  • FY 1997 - $22 billion.
  • FY 1996 - $107 billion.
  • FY 1995 - $164 billion.
  • FY 1994 - $203 billion.
President George H.W. Bush: Total = $1.03 trillion.
  • FY 1993 - $255 billion.
  • FY 1992 - $290 billion.
  • FY 1991 - $269 billion.
  • FY 1990 - $221 billion.
President Ronald Reagan: Total = $1.412 trillion.
  • FY 1989 - $153 billion.
  • FY 1988 - $155 billion.
  • FY 1987 - $150 billion.
  • FY 1986 - $221 billion.
  • FY 1985 - $212 billion.
  • FY 1984 - $185 billion.
  • FY 1983 - $208 billion.
  • FY 1982 - $128 billion.
President Jimmy Carter: Total = $253 billion
  • FY 1981 - $79 billion.
  • FY 1980 - $74 billion.
  • FY 1979 - $41 billion.
  • FY 1978 - $59 billion.
President Gerald Ford: Total = $181 billion.
  • FY 1977 - $54 billion.
  • FY 1976 - $74 billion.
  • FY 1975 - $53 billion.
President Richard Nixon: Total = $70 billion.
  • FY 1974 - $6 billion.
  • FY 1973 - $15 billion.
  • FY 1972 - $23 billion.
  • FY 1971 - $23 billion.
  • FY 1970 - $3 billion.
President Lyndon B. Johnson: Total = $42 billion.
  • FY 1969 - $3 billion surplus.
  • FY 1968 - $25 billion.
  • FY 1967 - $9 billion.
  • FY 1966 - $4 billion.
  • FY 1965 - $1 billion.
  • FY 1964 - $6 billion.
President John F. Kennedy: Total = $11 billion.
  • FY 1963 - $5 billion.
  • FY 1962 - $7 billion.
President Dwight Eisenhower: Total = $16 billion.
  • FY 1961 - $3 billion.
  • FY 1960 - $0 billion (slight surplus).
  • FY 1959 - $13 billion.
  • FY 1958 - $3 billion.
  • FY 1957 - $3 billion surplus.
  • FY 1956 - $4 billion surplus.
  • FY 1955 - $3 billion.
  • FY 1954 - $1 billion.
President Harry Truman: Total = $3 billion.
  • FY 1953 - $6 billion.
  • FY 1952 - $1 billion.
  • FY 1951 - $6 billion surplus.
  • FY 1950 - $3 billion.
  • FY 1949 - $1 billion surplus.
  • FY 1948 - $12 billion surplus.
  • FY 1947 - $4 billion surplus.
  • FY 1946 - $16 billion.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt: Total = $196 billion.
  • FY 1945 - $48 billion.
  • FY 1944 - $48 billion.
  • FY 1943 - $55 billion.
  • FY 1942 - $21 billion.
  • FY 1941 - $5 billion.
  • FY 1940 - $3 billion.
  • FY 1939 - $3 billion.
  • FY 1938 - $0 billion (slight deficit).
  • FY 1937 - $2 billion.
  • FY 1936 - $4 billion.
  • FY 1935 - $3 billion.
  • FY 1934 - $4 billion.
President Herbert Hoover: Total = $5 billion.
  • FY 1933 - $3 billion.
  • FY 1932 - $3 billion.
  • FY 1931 - $0 billion (slight deficit).
  • FY 1930 - $1 billion surplus.
President Calvin Coolidge: Total = $6 billion surplus.
  • 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.
President Warren G. Harding: Total = $2 billion surplus.
  • FY 1923 - $1 billion surplus.
  • FY 1922 - $1 billion surplus.
President Woodrow Wilson: Total = $22 billion.
  • FY 1921 - $1 billion surplus.
  • FY 1920 - $0 billion (slight surplus).
  • FY 1919 - $13 billion.
  • FY 1918 - $9 billion.
  • FY 1917 - $1 billion.
  • FY 1916 - $0 billion (slight surplus).
  • FY 1915 - $0 billion (slight surplus).
  • FY 1914 - $0 billion.
FY 1789 - FY 1913 - $24 billion surplus. (Source: OMB, Table 1.1—Summary of Receipts, Outlays, and Surpluses or Deficits: 1789–2017)

 

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