US Budget Deficit by President

By Dollar and Percent

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••• 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. 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. 

Four Factors That Influence the Deficit

There are four factors that can influence each president's deficit. 

  1. 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. 
  2. 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. If a hitch in the budget process keeps the proposed budget from being signed into law, Congress can choose to keep their agencies running at the current budget levels or it can initiate a government shutdown. This shutdown actually happened in 2013 and 2018. 
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

The Four Presidents with the Worst Deficits So Far

President Barack Obama had the largest deficits. By the end of his final budget, FY 2017, his deficits totaled $6.785 trillion. Obama took office during the Great Recession. He immediately needed to spend billions to stop it. He convinced Congress to add $253 billion from the economic stimulus package to Bush’s 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 in deficits in its first two years. Obama increased defense spending, totaling $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. Health care costs were rising as the American population aged. In 2010, Obama signed 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.

President George W. 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 the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act and Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act, 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.

President Ronald Reagan added $1.412 trillion in deficits, almost 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 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.

President Donald Trump deserves special mention. According to his budget projections, he would add $6.2 trillion in deficits during his first term. That would put him at #2 on this list. It would also be a 31 percent increase, putting him in the top 10 by percent.

What Budget Deficits Hide

Each year's deficit adds to the debt. But the total amount a president adds to the debt each year is usually more than the deficit. All presidents can employ a sleight of hand to reduce the appearance of the deficit. They can borrow from federal retirement funds in off-budget transactions. For example, the Social Security Trust Fund has run a surplus since 1987. 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 the deficit by spending these funds instead of issuing new Treasurys. That makes the deficit by year less than what's added to the debt by year.

For example, $8.588 trillion was added to the national debt under Obama. But his total budget deficits totaled $6.785 trillion. Similarly, President Bush's stated budget deficits totaled $3.294 trillion. But he added $5.849 trillion to the debt. Having said that, the president with the highest deficits are still the presidents who contributed the most to the debt. It's ironic that, as the debt has increased through the years, the value of presidents' salaries has decreased.

The chart below shows a breakdown of the top 10 U.S. presidents with the biggest debt increases.

List of Presidents' Budget Deficits by Fiscal Year 

Although most other presidents ran deficits, none came close to the four detailed above. Part of that is because the U.S. economy, as measured by gross domestic product, was so much smaller for other presidents. For example, in 1981 GDP was only $3 trillion, one-fifth the $15 trillion GDP in 2012. Below are each president's annual budget deficits since Woodrow Wilson.

President Donald Trump: Total Actual plus Budgeted = $4.040 trillion, a 20 percent increase. That's one reason why so many argue that Trump may not be better than Obama for the economy. Trump did not have to fight a recession during his term. It's usually better to have contractionary fiscal policy during an expansion instead of adding to the nation's debt.

President Barack Obama: Total = $6.785 trillion, a 57 percent increase.

  • FY 2017 - $666 billion. Although Trump requested additional spending, Congress did not approve it.
  • FY 2016 - $585 billion.
  • 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 trillion. This is the sum of $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. This amount is calculated from $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 with a 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 with a 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 billion with a slight surplus.

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

  • FY 1921 - $1 billion surplus.
  • FY 1920 - $0 billion with a slight surplus.
  • FY 1919 - $13 billion.
  • FY 1918 - $9 billion.
  • FY 1917 - $1 billion.
  • FY 1916 - $0 billion with a slight surplus.
  • FY 1915 - $0 billion with a 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.)