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U.S. Debt by President

Why the Winner Is...George W. Bush!

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Bush

Presidents Bush contributed the most to the debt dollarwise.

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
FDR New Deal Poster

FDR added the most to the debt percentage-wise.

FDR Presidential Library and Museum
JFK Reading Paper

JFK wasn't afraid of adding to the debt to spur economic growth.

Cecil Stoughton, White House, in the JFK Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

What's the best way to determine how much of the $17 trillion U.S. debt is attributable to each President? The most popular way is to look at the debt level when each President took office. Sometimes it's easier to look at a graph showing the percent of the debt accumulated under each President. It's also important to compare the debt as a percent of economic output.

However, these aren't the most accurate ways to measure the debt contributed by each President. Why? The President doesn't really have much control over the debt added during his first year in office. That's because 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. This was for FY 2002  which began on October 1. Until then, he had to live with President Clinton's last budget (FY 2001,) which lasted until September 30.. Although confusing, the Federal fiscal year is intentionally set up that way to give the new President time to put together his budget during his first month in office.

This means each new President pretty much has to live with that budget's tax rates and spending levels for the first nine months of his inaugural calendar year in office. That's why you really can't hold him accountable for the debt incurred by the previous President's last budget.

The Best Way to Measure Debt by President:

One way to measure the debt by President is to sum all the budget deficits. That's because the President is responsible for his budget priorities. It takes into account spending, and anticipated revenue from proposed tax cuts or hikes. For details, see Deficit by President.

However, there's a difference between the deficit and the debt by President. That's because every President can employ a sleight of hand to make his deficit appear smaller. They can borrow internally from other government sources. For example, the Social Security Trust Fund has run a surplus since 1987. That's because there were more working people contributing via payroll taxes than retired people withdrawing benefits. The Fund invests its surplus in U.S. Treasury notes. The President can reduce his deficit by spending these Treasuries, instead of issuing new ones. 

President George W. Bush - President Bush added the most to the debt, more than $6 trillion. This more than doubled the debt, which was $5.8 trillion on September 30, 2001 -- the end of FY 2001, which was President Clinton's last budget. Bush responded to the 9/11 attacks by launching the War on Terror. This drove military spending to record levels,  $600-$800 billion a year. This included the Iraq War, which cost $807.5 billion. President Bush also responded to the 2001 recession by passing EGTRRA and JGTRRA, otherwise known as the Bush tax cuts, which reduced revenue. He approved a $700 billion bailout package for banks to combat the 2008 global financial crisis.  For more, see the Bush Administration.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt - President Roosevelt increased the debt the most percentage-wise. Although he only added $236 billion, this was more than a 1,000% increase over the $23 billion debt level left by President Hoover's last budget. Of course, the Great Depression took a huge bite out of revenues. However, most of the debt was added to gear up for World War II, not to pay for the New Deal.  In fact, $209 billion alone was added to the debt between 1942-1945. 

President Barack Obama - The second largest contributor to the debt dollar-wise was President Obama. He added $4.8 trillion, a 41% increase, in just one term. 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, thanks to lower tax receipts from the 2008 financial crisis.

Both Presidents Bush and Obama had to contend with higher mandatory mandatory spending for Social Security and Medicare. He 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 didn't show up until the later years. For more, see National Debt Under Obama.

President Woodrow Wilson - President Wilson was the second largest contributor to the debt percentage-wise. Although he only added $21 billion, this was a 727% increase over the $3 billion debt level of his predecessor. Of course, Wilson had to pay for World War I. In fact, the Second Liberty Bond Act was enacted during his Presidency, giving Congress the right to enact the national debt ceiling. Article updated April 4, 2014

Amount Each President Added to the Debt per Fiscal Year Since 1960:

President Barack Obama: Added $5.081 trillion, a 44% increase to the $11.657 trillion debt level attributable to President Bush at the end of his last budget, FY 2009.

  • 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.) 
President George W. Bush: Added $5.849  trillion, a 101% increase to the $5.8 trillion debt level at the end of Clinton's last budget, FY 2001.
  • FY 2009 - $1.632 trillion. (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 - $554 billion.
  • FY 2004 - $596 billion.
  • FY 2003 - $555 billion.
  • FY 2002 - $421 billion.
President Bill Clinton: Added $1.396 trillion, a 32% increase to the $4.4 trillion debt level at the end of 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.
President George H.W. Bush: Added $1.554 trillion, a 54% increase to the $2.8 trillion debt level 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.
President Ronald Reagan: Added $1.86 trillion, 186% increase to the $998 billion debt level 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.
President Jimmy Carter: Added $299 billion, a 43% increase to the $699 billion debt level 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.
President Gerald Ford: Added $224 billion, a 47% increase to the $475 billion debt level at the end of Nixon's last budget, FY 1974.
  • FY 1977 - $78 billion.
  • FY 1976 - $87 billion.
  • FY 1975 - $58 billion.
President Richard Nixon: Added $121 billion, a 34% increase to the $354 billion debt level at the end of LBJ'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.
President Lyndon B. Johnson: Added $42 billion, a 13% increase to the $312 billion debt level at the end of JFK'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.
President John F. Kennedy: Added $23 billion, a 8% increase to the $289 billion debt level at the end of Eisenhower's last budget, FY1961.
  • FY 1964 - $6 billion.
  • FY 1963 - $7 billion.
  • FY 1962 - $10 billion.
President Dwight Eisenhower: Added $23 billion, a 9% increase to the $266 billion debt level 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.
President Harry Truman: Added $7 billion, a 3% increase over FDR's debt level of $259 billion at the end of 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.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt: Added $236 billion, a 1,048% increase over $23 billion, the 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.
President Herbert Hoover: Added $6 billion, a 33% increase over $17 billion, the 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.

President Calvin Coolidge: Subtracted $5 billion from the debt, a 26% decline from $21 billion the debt level 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.

President Warren G. Harding: Subtracted $2 billion from the debt, a 7% decline 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.
President Woodrow Wilson: Added $21 billion to the debt, a 727% increase over the $3 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 (slight surplus).
  • FY 1914 - $0 billion.
FY 1789 - FY 1913 - $3 billion debt created. (Source: OMB, Table 1.1—Summary of Receipts, Outlays, and Surpluses or Deficits: 1789–2017)

 

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