What's the best way to determine how much each president has contributed to our nation's $28.4 trillion in U.S. debt? The most popular ways to measure involve comparing the debt level from when a president enters office to the debt level when they leave. It's also good to compare the debt as a percentage of economic output, which takes into account the size of the economy at the time the administration accumulated the debt.
Drawback of Measuring Debt by President
Neither of the techniques mentioned above is a very accurate way to measure each president's impact on the national debt because the president doesn't have much control over the national debt during their first year in office.
For example, President Donald Trump took office in January 2017. He submitted his first budget in May. It covered the 2018 fiscal year, which didn't begin until Oct. 1, 2017. Trump operated the first part of his term under President Barack Obama's budget for fiscal year 2017, which ended on Sept. 30, 2017.
While the time lag may make it seem confusing, Congress intentionally sets it up this way. An advantage of the federal fiscal year is that it gives the new president time to put together their budget during their first months in office.
The Best Way To Measure Debt by President
The best way to measure a president's debt is to add up their budget deficits and compare that total to the debt level when they took office. A president's budget reveals their administration's priorities.
Though they sound similar, deficit and debt are two different things. A deficit is a budget shortfall, whereas debt is the running total of all deficits and surpluses. Deficits add to the debt, while surpluses reduce it.
Top 5 Presidents Who Contributed to the Debt by Percentage
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945)
President Roosevelt added the largest percentage increase to the national debt. Although he only added $236 billion, this was an increase of about 1,048% from the $22.5 billion debt level left by President Herbert Hoover before him. The Great Depression and the New Deal contributed to FDR's yearly deficits, but the biggest cost was World War II—it added $186.3 billion to the debt between 1942 and 1945.
Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921)
President Wilson was the second-largest contributor to the debt, percentage-wise. He added about $21 billion, which was a 723% increase over the $2.9 billion debt of his predecessor. World War I contributed to the deficits that raised the national debt.
Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)
President Reagan increased the debt by $1.86 trillion, or by 186%. Reagan's 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 (2001-2009)
President Bush added $5.85 trillion to the national debt. That's a 101% increase, putting him in fourth. Bush launched the War on Terror in response to the 9/11 attacks, which led to multi-trillion-dollar spending on the War in Afghanistan and the War in Iraq. Bush also dealt with the 2001 recession and the 2008 financial crisis.
Barack Obama (2009-2017)
Under President Obama, the national debt grew the most dollar-wise ($8.6 trillion) and was fifth in terms of percentage at 74%. Obama fought the Great Recession with an $831 billion economic stimulus package and added $858 billion through tax cuts. Even though fiscal year 2009 budget was set by President Bush, Obama added to it with the Economic Stimulus Act in 2009.
U.S. Debt Increase by President Per Fiscal Year
The U.S. Treasury Department has historical tables that report the annual U.S. debt for each fiscal year (FY) since 1790. We've compiled this data from that source to create the figures used below.
At the end of fiscal year 2021, the national debt was $28.4 trillion. Between the end of fiscal year 2020 and the end of fiscal year 2021, the national debt grew $1.5 trillion, a 5.6% increase year over year. For fiscal year 2022, President Biden's budget includes a deficit of $1.84 trillion, which could grow the national debt to over $30 trillion by Oct. 1, 2022, when fiscal year 2023 begins.
At the end of fiscal year 2020, the debt was $26.9 trillion. Trump added $6.7 trillion to the debt between fiscal year 2017 and fiscal year 2020, a 33.1% increase, largely due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and 2020 recession.
In his FY 2021 budget, Trump's budget included a $966 billion deficit. However, the national debt actually grew by $1.5 trillion between Oct. 1, 2020, and Oct. 1, 2021.
- FY 2021: $1.5 trillion
- FY 2020: $4.2 trillion
- FY 2019: $1.2 trillion
- FY 2018: $1.3 trillion
President Obama added about $8.6 trillion, about a 74% increase, to the national debt at the end of President Bush’s last budget in 2009.
- FY 2017: $671 billion
- FY 2016: $1.42 trillion
- FY 2015: $326 billion
- FY 2014: $1.09 trillion
- FY 2013: $672 billion
- FY 2012: $1.28 trillion
- FY 2011: $1.23 trillion
- FY 2010: $1.65 trillion
- FY 2009: $253 billion (Congress passed the Economic Stimulus Act, which spent $253 billion)
George W. Bush
President Bush added $5.85 trillion to the national debt, a 101% increase from the $5.8 trillion debt at the end of Clinton's last budget for fiscal year 2001.
- FY 2009: $1.63 trillion (this was Bush's deficit without the impact of the Economic Stimulus Act)
- FY 2008: $1.02 trillion
- FY 2007: $501 billion
- FY 2006: $574 billion
- FY 2005: $553 billion
- FY 2004: $596 billion
- FY 2003: $555 billion
- FY 2002: $421 billion
President Clinton increased the national debt by almost $1.4 trillion, almost a 32% increase from the $4.4 trillion debt at the end of President H.W. Bush's last budget.
- FY 2001: $133 billion
- FY 2000: $18 billion
- FY 1999: $130 billion
- FY 1998: $113 billion
- FY 1997: $189 billion
- FY 1996: $251 billion
- FY 1995: $281 billion
- FY 1994: $281 billion
George H.W. Bush
President H.W. Bush added $1.55 trillion to the debt, a 54% increase from the $2.857 trillion debt at the end of Reagan's last budget.
- FY 1993: $347 billion
- FY 1992: $399 billion
- FY 1991: $432 billion
- FY 1990: $376 billion
President Regan added $1.86 trillion to the national debt, a 186% increase from the $997.8 billion debt at the end of Carter's last budget.
- FY 1989: $255 billion
- FY 1988: $252 billion
- FY 1987: $225 billion
- FY 1986: $302 billion
- FY 1985: $251 billion
- FY 1984: $195 billion
- FY 1983: $235 billion
- FY 1982: $145 billion
President Carter added $299 billion to the debt, a 42.7% increase from the $698.8 billion debt at the end of Ford's last budget.
- FY 1981: $90.1 billion
- FY 1980: $81.1 billion
- FY 1979: $54.9 billion
- FY 1978: $72.7 billion
President Ford added $223.7 billion to the debt.
- FY 1977: $78.4 billion
- FY 1976: $87.2 billion
- FY 1975: $58.1 billion
President Nixon added $121.1 billion to the national debt, a 34% increase from the $353.7 billion debt at the end of President Johnson's last budget.
- FY 1974: $16.9 billion
- FY 1973: $30.8 billion
- FY 1972: $29.1 billion
- FY 1971: $27.2 billion
- FY 1970: $17.1 billion
Lyndon B. Johnson
President Johnson added $41.8 billion to the national debt, just a small 13% increase from the $312 billion debt at the end of President Kennedy's time in office in 1964.
- FY 1969: $6.1 billion
- FY 1968: $21.3 billion
- FY 1967: $6.3 billion
- FY 1966: $2.6 billion
- FY 1965: $5.5 billion
John F. Kennedy
President Kennedy added $22.6 billion to the national debt.
- FY 1964: $5.8 billion
- FY 1963: $7.6 billion
- FY 1962: $9.2 billion
President Eisenhower added $22.8 billion to the national debt.
- FY 1961: $2.6 billion
- FY 1960: $1.6 billion
- FY 1959: $8.3 billion
- FY 1958: $5.8 billion
- FY 1957: $2.2 billion surplus
- FY 1956: $1.6 billion surplus
- FY 1955: $3.1 billion
- FY 1954: $5.1 billion
President Truman added $7.3 billion to the national debt.
- FY 1953: $6.9 billion
- FY 1952: $3.8 billion
- FY 1951: $2.1 billion surplus
- FY 1950: $4.5 billion
- FY 1949: $478 million surplus
- FY 1948: $6 billion surplus
- FY 1947: $11 billion surplus
- FY 1946: $10.7 billion
Franklin D. Roosevelt
President Roosevelt increased the national debt by $236 billion, a 1,048% increase from the $22.5 billion debt at the end of Hoover's last budget.
- FY 1945: $57.7 billion
- FY 1944: $64.3 billion
- FY 1943: $64.2 billion
- FY 1942: $23.5 billion
- FY 1941: $6 billion
- FY 1940: $2.5 billion
- FY 1939: $3.2 billion
- FY 1938: $740 million
- FY 1937: $2.6 billion
- FY 1936: $5 billion
- FY 1935: $1.6 billion
- FY 1934: $4.5 billion
President Hoover added about $5.7 billion to the national debt.
- FY 1933: $3 billion
- FY 1932: $2.8 billion
- FY 1931: $616 million
- FY 1930: $746 million surplus
President Coolidge reduced the national debt by about $5.3 billion.
- FY 1929: $673 billion surplus
- FY 1928: $907 million surplus
- FY 1927: $1.1 billion surplus
- FY 1926: $873 million surplus
- FY 1925: $734.6 million surplus
- FY 1924: $1 billion surplus
Warren G. Harding
President Harding reduced the national debt by about $1.6 billion thanks to budget surpluses.
- FY 1923: $614 million surplus
- FY 1922: $1 billion surplus
President Wilson added about $21 billion to the national debt, a 723% increase from the $2.9 billion debt at the end of Taft's last budget for fiscal year 1913.
- FY 1921: $1.9 billion surplus
- FY 1920: $1.4 billion surplus
- FY 1919: $12.8 billion
- FY 1918: $9.8 billion
- FY 1917: $2.1 billion
- FY 1916: $551 million
- FY 1915: $146 million
- FY 1914: $0 (slight surplus)
All presidents from 1790 to 1913 added a total of $2.9 billion to the national debt.