US Budget Deficit by President
By Dollar and Percent
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 Oct. 1 through Sept. 30. As a result, a new president has no influence on the deficit for January through September of that first year.
So, one of the best ways 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.
- A budget deficit results when the revenue from taxes is less than spending in a fiscal year.
- Presidents influence the debt through policy decisions, but they can't control mandatory spending enacted by Congress.
- The four presidents with the biggest deficits are Barack Obama, Donald Trump, George W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan.
Four Factors That Influence the Deficit
There are four factors that can influence each president's deficit.
- 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 acts of Congress that created the programs determine how much must be spent. The president's budget can only estimate what these programs will cost. Unless the president gets Congress to change them, they've got to live with that spending.
- 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 also prepares a discretionary spending budget. The two houses combine them into the final budget that the president reviews and signs. If there's a hitch in the budget process, Congress can keep federal agencies running at current budget levels with a continuing resolution. Otherwise, federal agencies will shutdown. There have been four shutdowns that lasted more than one business day. The first two happened in the winter of 1995-1996. The third was in 2013. The fourth shutdown started in December 2018 and continued into January 2019.
- President inherit their predecessors' policies. For example, presidents suffer lower revenue from predecessors' tax cuts. They must win or wind down wars started before they took office. They must also manage social programs initiated by prior acts of Congress.
- Some presidents have to deal with catastrophic events. President Obama dealt with the 2008 financial crisis. President Bush had to respond to the 9/11 terrorist attack and hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Their required responses came with economic price tags.
The Five Presidents with the Worst Deficits So Far
The four presidents with the worst deficits were Barack Obama, Donald Trump, George W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan.
President Obama had the largest deficits. By the end of his final budget, FY 2017, his budget deficits totaled $6.781 trillion. That's a 58% increase from President George W. Bush's last budget.
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 an additional $534 billion over the rest of Obama’s terms.
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. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that the legislation would reduce federal deficits by $337 billion between 2017 and 2026.
President Trump took office in 2017. By the end of his first term in 2020, he will have added $6.6 trillion in deficits, a 33% increase. The CBO predicted that the pandemic would increase the FY 2020 deficit by $2.2 trillion and the FY 2021 deficit by $600 billion.
The pandemic means the FY 2020 deficit will be almost as much as the $3.8 trillion deficit Trump budgeted for his entire first term.
In March 2020, Trump declared a state of emergency as the pandemic broke out in the U.S. Nonessential businesses closed while Americans sheltered in place. Congress passed the $2 trillion CARES Act, along with other stimulus measures. The combination of reduced tax receipts and stimulus spending created the record deficit levels.
George W. Bush
President Bush took office in 2001. He racked up $3.293 trillion in deficits, a 57% increase.
He responded to the 9/11 attacks with the War on Terror. That raised military spending. The Bush tax cuts addressed the 2001 recession. Unfortunately, the cuts did not sunset when the recession was over. That depleted revenues during the 2008 recession. Bush attacked the financial crisis with the bank bailout. Congress added the bailout to the mandatory budget, where it became the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).
President Reagan took office in 1981. He added $1.412 trillion in deficits, and almost doubled the debt. He fought the 1982 recession by getting the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 passed. It reduced the highest marginal income tax rate from 70% to 50%. The act reduced the corporate income tax for small companies with taxable income of $50,000 or less.
Reagan also increased government spending by 2.5% a year. That included a 35% increase in the defense budget and an expansion of Medicare.
What Budget Deficits Hide
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.
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.
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 $6.781 trillion. Similarly, President Bush's stated budget deficits totaled $3.293 trillion. But he added $5.849 trillion to the debt. Having said that, the presidents with the highest deficits are still the presidents who contributed the most to the debt.
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 (GDP), was so much smaller for other presidents. For example, by the end of 1981, GDP was only $3.2 trillion, one-fifth the roughly $16.3 trillion GDP by the end of 2012. Below are each president's annual budget deficits since Woodrow Wilson.
President Donald Trump: Total Actual plus Budgeted = $6.612 trillion, a 33% increase
- FY 2021 - $966 billion budgeted + $600 billion from pandemic impact = $1.566 trillion
- FY 2020 - $1.083 trillion budgeted + $2.2 trillion from pandemic = $3.283 trillion
- FY 2019 - $984 billion
- FY 2018 - $779 billion
President Barack Obama: Total = $6.781 trillion, a 58% increase
- FY 2017 - $665 billion. Although Trump requested additional spending, Congress did not approve it.
- FY 2016 - $585 billion
- FY 2015 - $442 billion
- FY 2014 - $485 billion
- FY 2013 - $680 billion
- FY 2012 - $1.077 trillion
- FY 2011 - $1.300 trillion
- FY 2010 - $1.5 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% 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% 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% 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% 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% 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% increase
- FY 1977 - $54 billion
- FY 1976 - $74 billion
- FY 1975 - $53 billion
President Richard Nixon: Total = $70 billion, a 20% 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% 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% increase
- FY 1964 - $6 billion
- FY 1963 - $5 billion
- FY 1962 - $7 billion
President Dwight Eisenhower: Total = $15 billion, a 6% 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% 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% 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% 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% 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% decrease
- FY 1923 - $1 billion surplus
- FY 1922 - $0 billion with a slight surplus
President Woodrow Wilson: Total = $22 billion, a 775% 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: Office of Management and Budget, "Table 1.1—Summary of Receipts, Outlays, and Surpluses or Deficits: 1789–2021."