U.S. Debt by President: By Dollar and Percent

Why the Winner Is...Barack Obama

5 presidents and their debt
(L-R) President Barack Obama and former Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter attend the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Center April 25, 2013 in Dallas, Texas. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

What's the best way to determine how much each president contributed to the $19.9 trillion U.S. debt? The most popular method is to compare the debt level from when a president enters office to the debt level when he leaves. A good visual representation is a graph showing the percent of the debt accumulated under each president. You can also compare the debt as a percent of economic output.

But these aren't accurate ways to measure the debt created by each president.

Why? The president doesn't 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. But that was for FY 2002, which didn't begin until October 1. For the first nine months of his new term, Bush had to live with President Clinton's last budget. That was FY 2001, which continued until September 30, 2001. This is why no new president is accountable for the budget deficit in his first year in office.

Yes, it's confusing. But the federal fiscal year is set up that way to give the new president time to put together his budget during his first month in office.

The Best Way to Measure Debt by President

One way to measure the debt by president is to sum his budget deficits. That's because the president is responsible for his budget priorities.

Each year's deficit takes into account budgeted spending and anticipated revenue from proposed tax cuts or hikes. For details, see Deficit by President and Deficit by Year.

But there's a difference between the deficit and the debt by president. That's because all presidents can employ sleight of hand to reduce the appearance of the deficit.

They can borrow from federal retirement funds. 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 the deficit by spending these funds instead of issuing new Treasuries. 

Barack Obama - The national debt grew the most dollar-wise during President Obama's two terms. He added $7.917 trillion, a 68 percent increase, in seven years. This was the fifth-largest increase percentage-wise. Obama's budgets included the economic stimulus package. It added $787 billion by cutting taxes, extending unemployment benefits, and funding public works projects. The Obama tax cuts added $858 billion to the debt in two years.

Obama's budget increased defense spending to between $700 billion and $800 billion a year. Federal income was down, thanks to lower tax receipts from the 2008 financial crisis. He also sponsored the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. It was designed to reduce the debt by $143 billion over ten years. But these savings didn't show up until the later years. For more, see National Debt Under Obama.

George W. Bush - President Bush added the second-greatest amount to the debt, at $5.849 trillion. But this was the fourth-largest percentage increase out of all the presidents. Bush increased the debt 101 percent from where it started on September 30, 2001, at $5.8 trillion. That's 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. That drove military spending to record levels of $600-$800 billion a year. It included the Iraq War, which cost $807.5 billion.

President Bush also responded to the 2001 recession by passing EGTRRA and JGTRRA. The Bush tax cuts further reduced revenue. He approved a $700 billion bailout package for banks to combat the 2008 global financial crisis.  Both Presidents Bush and Obama had to contend with higher mandatory spending for Social Security and Medicare.

 For more, see President Obama Compared to President Bush Policies.

Franklin D. Roosevelt - President Roosevelt increased the debt the most percentage-wise. Although he only added $236 billion, this was a 1,048 percent increase from the $23 billion debt level left by President Hoover. Of course, the Great Depression took an enormous bite out of revenues. The New Deal cost billions. But FDR's major contribution to the debt was World War II spending. He added $209 billion to the debt between 1942 and 1945. For more, see FDR Economic Policies.

Woodrow Wilson - President Wilson was the second-largest contributor to the debt percentage-wise. He added $21 billion, which was a 727 percent increase over the $2.9 billion debt of his predecessor. Wilson had to pay for World War I. During his presidency, the Second Liberty Bond Act gave Congress the right to adopt the national debt ceiling.

Amount Added to the Debt for Each Fiscal Year Since 1960:

Barack Obama: Added $7.917 trillion, a 68 percent increase from the $11.657 trillion debt at the end of George W. Bush’s last budget, FY 2009.

  • FY 2016 - $1.423 trillion.
  • FY 2015 - $327 billion.
  • FY 2014 - $1.086 trillion. 
  • 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.)

George W. Bush: Added $5.849 trillion, a 101 percent increase from the $5.8 trillion debt 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.

Bill Clinton: Added $1.396 trillion, a 32 percent increase from the $4.4 trillion debt at the end of George H.W. 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.

George H.W. Bush: Added $1.554 trillion, a 54 percent increase from the $2.8 trillion debt 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.

Ronald Reagan: Added $1.86 trillion, a 186 percent increase from the $998 billion debt at the end of Carter's last budget, FY 1981. See Did Reaganomics Work?

  • 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.

Jimmy Carter: Added $299 billion, a 43 percent increase from the $699 billion debt 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.

Gerald Ford: Added $224 billion, a 47 percent increase from the $475 billion debt at the end of Nixon's last budget, FY 1974.

  • FY 1977 - $78 billion.
  • FY 1976 - $87 billion.
  • FY 1975 - $58 billion.

Richard Nixon: Added $121 billion, a 34 percent increase from the $354 billion debt 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.

Lyndon B. Johnson: Added $42 billion, a 13 percent increase from the $312 billion debt 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.

John F. Kennedy: Added $23 billion, an 8 percent increase from the $289 billion debt at the end of Eisenhower's last budget, FY 1961.

  • FY 1964 - $6 billion.
  • FY 1963 - $7 billion.
  • FY 1962 - $10 billion.

Dwight Eisenhower: Added $23 billion, a 9 percent increase from the $266 billion debt 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.

Harry Truman: Added $7 billion, a 3 percent increase from the $259 billion debt at the end of FDR’s last budget, 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.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: Added $236 billion, a 1,048 percent increase from the $23 billion 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.

Herbert Hoover: Added $6 billion, a 33 percent increase from the $17 billion 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.

Calvin Coolidge: Subtracted $5 billion from the debt, a 26 percent decrease from the $21 billion debt 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.

Warren G. Harding: Subtracted $2 billion from the debt, a 7 percent decrease 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.

Woodrow Wilson: Added $21 billion to the debt, a 727 percent increase from the $2.9 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: $2.9 billion debt created. (Source: Historical Tables, U.S. Treasury Department.)