US Debt by President by Dollar and Percentage

Who Increased the U.S. Debt the Most? Depends on How You Measure It.

Photo by Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images

What's the best way to determine how much each president has contributed to our nation's $22 trillion in U.S. debt? The most popular method involves comparing the debt level from when a president enters office to the debt level when he leaves. You can also compare the debt as a percentage of economic output. It's ironic that, as the debt has increased through the years, the value of presidents' salaries has decreased.

Measurement Shortcomings

Neither of these are very accurate ways to measure each president's debt.

The president doesn't have much control over the debt added during his first year in office. Its budget was already set by the previous president.

For example, President Donald Trump took office in January 2017. He submitted his first budget in May. It covered Fiscal Year 2018, which didn't begin until October 1. For the first nine months of his new term, Trump operated under President Barack Obama's last budget. That was for FY 2017, which continued until September 30, 2017. 

This timing difference explains why no new president is accountable for the budget deficit in his first year in office.

While the time lag makes it seem confusing, Congress intentionally set it up this way. The federal fiscal year gives the new president time to put together his budget during his first month in office.

The Best Way to Measure Debt by President

The best way to measure a president's debt is to add up his budget deficits. A president's budget reveals his administration's priorities. The deficit by president reveals how much deficit was in each year's budget.

The terminology sounds similar, but a difference exists between the deficit and the debt by a president. All presidents can employ a little sleight of hand to reduce the appearance of the deficit.

For example, they can borrow from federal retirement funds. The Social Security Trust Fund has run a surplus since 1987. More working people contributed via payroll taxes than retired people withdrew in 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 Treasury securities. It doesn't, however, reduce the debt.

The Top Five Contributors by Percentage

Franklin D. Roosevelt: President Roosevelt had the largest percentage increase. Although he only added $236 billion, this was a 1,048% increase from the $23 billion debt level left by President Herbert Hoover. The Great Depression took an enormous bite out of revenues. The New Deal cost billions. But the biggest cost was World War II. It added $209 billion to the debt between 1942 and 1945. 

Woodrow Wilson: President Wilson was the second-largest contributor to the debt, percentage-wise. He added $21 billion, which was a 727% 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.

Ronald Reagan: President Reagan increased the debt by 186%. Reaganomics added $1.86 trillion. Reagan's brand of supply-side economics didn't grow the economy enough to offset the lost revenue from its tax cuts. Reagan also increased the defense budget by 35%.

George W. Bush: President Bush added $5.849 trillion, the second-greatest dollar amount. This was a 101% increase, the fourth-largest. Bush launched the War on Terror in response to the 9/11 attacks. It includes the War in Afghanistan, at $1.1 trillion, and the Iraq War, at $1 trillion. Military spending rose to a record level of $800 billion a year.

Bush fought two recessions.

Both Presidents Bush and Obama also had to contend with higher mandatory spending for Social Security and Medicare. 

Barack Obama: Under President Obama, the national debt grew the most dollar-wise. He added $8.588 trillion. This 74% increase was the fifth-largest. Obama fought the Great Recession with the $831 billion economic stimulus package.  The Obama tax cuts added $858 billion.

Obama increased defense spending to a record of $855 billion. He sponsored the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. It was designed to reduce the debt by $143 billion over 10 years. But these savings didn't show up until the later years. 

U.S. Debt Increase by Fiscal Year Since 1960

The U.S. Treasury Department has historical tables that report the annual U.S. debt for each fiscal year since 1790. This data has been compiled for each president as detailed below.

Donald Trump: Trump plans to add $5.088 trillion to the debt in his first term. That's a 30% increase from the $20.245 trillion debt at the end of Obama's last budget for FY 2017. If he remains in office for a second term, he plans to add $9.1 trillion. Trump had promised to eliminate the debt during his campaign.

  • FY 2021 - $1.276 trillion.
  • FY 2020 - $1.281 trillion.
  • FY 2019 - $1.314 trillion.
  • FY 2018 - $1.217 trillion.

Barack Obama: Added $8.588 trillion, a 74% increase from the $11.657 trillion debt at the end of Bush’s last budget, FY 2009.

  • FY 2017 - $672 billion.
  • 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% increase from the $5.8 trillion debt at the end of Clinton's last budget, FY 2001.

  • FY 2009 - $1.632 trillion. This was 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% 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% increase from the $2.857 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% increase from the $998 billion debt 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.

Jimmy Carter: Added $299 billion, a 43% 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% 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% increase from the $354 billion debt at the end of President Johnson'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% increase from the $312 billion debt at the end of President Kennedy'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% 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% 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% increase from the $259 billion debt at the end of President Roosevelt’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% 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% 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% 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% 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% 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 with a slight surplus.
  • FY 1914 - $0 billion.

FY 1789 - FY 1913: $2.9 billion debt created. 

Resources: Debt from 1929 to 2017: U.S. Treasury Historical Tables. U.S. Treasury, Debt to the Penny. Debt from 2018 to 2021: FY 2020 budget, "Table S-10. Federal Government Financing and Debt."

Article Sources

  1. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. “Federal Surplus or Debt as a Percent of Gross Domestic Product,” Accessed Nov. 15, 2019.

  2. Social Security. “Social Security Income, Cost, And Asset Reserves” Accessed Nov. 3, 2019.

  3. CBO. “Estimated Impact of The American Recovery And Reinvestment Act on Employment And Economic Output From October 2011 Through December 2011,” Accessed Nov. 3, 2019.

  4. Treasury Direct. “Historical Debt Outstanding-Annual,” Accessed Nov. 3, 2019.

  5. Whitehouse.gov. “A Budget For A Better America, Fiscal Year 2020, Table S-10,” Accessed Nov. 3, 2019.

  6. Treasury Direct. “Historical Debt Outstanding – Annual 1900-1949,” Accessed Nov. 3, 2019.

  7. Treasury Direct. “The Debt To The Penny And Who Holds It,” Accessed Nov. 3, 2019.

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