Deficit by President: What Budget Deficits Hide

By Dollar and Percent

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U.S. President George W. Bush (R) walks on the colonnade with then President-elect Barack Obama at the White House on November 10, 2008. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Which president ran the largest budget deficits? There are two ways to answer that question. The most popular way is to add up the deficits for each year the president was in office. But a president doesn’t control the first year’s deficit. The previous president’s federal budget is still in effect for most of that year. That's because the federal government's fiscal year runs from October 1 through September 30.

As a result, a new president has no influence on the deficit for January through September of that first year. 

So, the best way to calculate the deficit is to look at each president’s budgets. Then, simply add the deficits for those budgets. This reflects the president's priorities in black and white. It measures the impact of deficit spending and tax changes in dollars and cents. 

Five Factors That Influence the Deficit

In many ways, the president is responsible for the budget deficit. But there are five other factors that can also influence the deficit. 

First, the president has no control over the mandatory budget or its deficit. That includes Social Security and Medicare benefits. These are the two biggest expenses any president has. The mandatory budget estimates what these programs will cost. The acts of Congress that created the programs also mandate the spending. Unless the president can get Congress to remove or change them, he's got to live with that spending.

 

Second, the Constitution gave Congress, not the president, the power to control spending. The president’s budget is just a starting point. Each house of Congress prepares a discretionary spending budget. They combine them into the final budget that the president reviews and signs. For more, see Budget Process

Third, each president inherits many of his predecessors' policies. For example, every president suffered from lower revenue. That's a result of President Reagan's and President Bush's tax cuts. Presidents who raise taxes quickly become unpopular. As a result, tax cuts rarely disappear.

Fourth, some presidents have to deal with catastrophic events. President Obama responded to the worst recession since the Great Depression. President Bush reacted to the 9/11 terrorist attack and Hurricane Katrina. Their required responses came with economic price tags.

Fifth, each year's deficit adds to the debt. But the total amount added to the debt each year is usually more than the deficit. That's because presidents can "borrow" from the Social Security Trust Fund. That's the largest of the federal retirement funds that run a surplus. That makes the deficit smaller than what's added to the debt. For example, President Bush's stated budget deficits totaled $3.294 trillion. But he added $5.849 trillion to the debt. He borrowed the rest from Social Security in off-budget transactions. Find out Which President Contributed the Most to the Debt?

President Barack Obama

President Obama had the largest deficits.

By the end of his final budget (FY 2017), his deficits were $6.576 trillion. Obama took office during the Great Recession. He immediately needed to spend billions to stop it. He convinced Congress to add the $787 billion economic stimulus package to Bush’s FY 2009 budget. This added $253 billion to the FY 2009 budget. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act added another $534 billion over the rest of Obama’s terms.

In 2010, the Obama tax cut added $858 billion to the debt in its first two years. Obama increased defense spending, adding as much as $800 billion a year. Federal income decreased due to lower tax receipts from the 2008 financial crisis.

Both Presidents Bush and Obama suffered from higher mandatory spending than their predecessors did. Social Security and Medicare benefits were eating up more of the budget.

That's because health care costs were rising as the American population aged. In 2010, Obama launched the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. It sought to reduce health care spending. This reduction would lower the debt by $143 billion by 2020. For more, see National Debt Under Obama.

President George W. Bush

President Bush is next, racking up $3.293 trillion over two terms. He responded to the 9/11 attacks with the War on Terror. That raised military spending to $600 billion a year. The Bush tax cuts, also known as EGTRRA and JGTRRA, cut taxes to address the 2001 recession. Unfortunately, the cuts did not sunset when the recession was over. That worsened the housing boom and depleted revenues during the 2008 recession. He attacked the 2008 financial crisis with the $700 billion bailout. Congress added the bailout to the mandatory budget. There it became the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).

President Ronald Reagan

President Reagan added $1.412 trillion in deficits, nearly doubling the debt. He fought the 1982 recession by cutting the top income tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent and the corporate rate from 48 percent to 34 percent. Reagan also increased government spending by 2.5 percent a year. That included a 35 percent increase in the defense budget and an expansion of Medicare. 

President George H.W. Bush

President George H.W. Bush created 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 that ended the 1989 Savings and Loan crisis. The 1991 recession cut into tax revenue.

Budget Deficits by Fiscal Year 

Although most other presidents ran deficits, none came 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, five times smaller than the $15 trillion GDP in 2012.

The table below shows each president's annual budget deficits since Woodrow Wilson. For more, see Deficit by Year and Debt by Year

President Barack Obama: Total Projected Plus Actual Deficits = $6.575 trillion, a 56 percent increase.

  • FY 2017 - $441 billion projected.
  • FY 2016 - $600 billion expected.
  • FY 2015 - $438 billion.
  • FY 2014 - $485 billion.
  • FY 2013 - $679 billion.
  • FY 2012 - $1.087 trillion.
  • FY 2011 - $1.300 trillion.
  • FY 2010 - $1.547 ($1.294 trillion plus $253 billion from the Obama Stimulus Act that was attached to the FY 2009 budget).

President George W. Bush: Total = $3.293 trillion, a 57 percent increase.

  • FY 2009 - $1.16 trillion. ($1.413 trillion minus $253 billion from Obama's Stimulus Act)
  • FY 2008 - $459 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, a 1 percent decrease.

  • 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 = $1.036 trillion, a 36 percent increase.

  • FY 1993 - $255 billion.
  • FY 1992 - $290 billion.
  • FY 1991 - $269 billion.
  • FY 1990 - $221 billion.

President Ronald Reagan: Total = $1.412 trillion, a 142 percent increase

  • 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, a 36 percent increase.

  • FY 1981 - $79 billion.
  • FY 1980 - $74 billion.
  • FY 1979 - $41 billion.
  • FY 1978 - $59 billion.

President Gerald Ford: Total = $181 billion, a 38 percent increase.

  • FY 1977 - $54 billion.
  • FY 1976 - $74 billion.
  • FY 1975 - $53 billion.

President Richard Nixon: Total = $70 billion, a 20 percent increase.

  • 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 = $36 billion, an 11 percent increase.

  • FY 1969 - $3 billion surplus.
  • FY 1968 - $25 billion.
  • FY 1967 - $9 billion.
  • FY 1966 - $4 billion.
  • FY 1965 - $1 billion.

President John F. Kennedy: Total = $18 billion, a 6 percent increase.

  • FY 1964 - $6 billion.
  • FY 1963 - $5 billion.
  • FY 1962 - $7 billion.

President Dwight Eisenhower: Total = $15 billion, a 6 percent increase.

  • 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 = $5 billion, a 2 percent increase.

  • FY 1953 - $6 billion.
  • FY 1952 - $2 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 = $194 billion, a 186 percent increase.

  • 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, a 30 percent increase.

  • FY 1933 - $3 billion.
  • FY 1932 - $3 billion.
  • FY 1931 - $0 billion (slight deficit).
  • FY 1930 - $1 billion surplus.

President Calvin Coolidge: Total = $5 billion surplus, a 26 percent decrease.

  • 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 = $1 billion surplus, a 6 percent decrease.

  • FY 1923 - $1 billion surplus.
  • FY 1922 - $0 (slight surplus).

President Woodrow Wilson: Total = $22 billion, a 775 percent increase.

  • 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 - $1 billion surplus. (Source: "Table S-5. Mid-Session Review Fiscal Year 2017," Office of Management and Budget, July 15, 2016. "Table 1.1—Summary of Receipts, Outlays, and Surpluses or Deficits: 1789–2021," Office of Management and Budget.)