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 $26 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, presidents 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. This maneuver, however, doesn’t 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 percentage increase. 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.

  1. 2001 recession: Initiated the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act and the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act
  2. 2008 financial crisis: Approved a $700 billion bailout package for banks.

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 an $831 billion economic stimulus package. The Obama tax cuts added $858 billion.

Obama increased defense spending to $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 1914

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: In his FY 2021 budget, Trump planned to add $4.832 trillion to the debt in his first term. That's a 24% increase from the $20.245 trillion debt at the end of Obama's last budget for FY 2017.

The COVID-19 pandemic added an additional $2 trillion to the debt in the first quarter of 2020. That's from the CARES Act and a reduction in tax revenues as GDP plummeted 5%.

If Trump remains in office for a second term, he planned to add $8.3 trillion for both terms. Trump had promised to eliminate the debt during his campaign.

  • FY 2021 - $1.177 trillion projected in budget
  • FY 2020 - $1.181 trillion projected in budget
  • FY 2019 - $1.203 trillion
  • FY 2018 - $1.271 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 - $671 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 - $0 billion with a 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 24% decrease from the $22 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 1914 to 2019: Historical Debt Outstanding. Debt from 2020 to 2021: FY 2021 budget."

Article Sources

  1. U.S. Department of the Treasury. “The Debt to the Penny and Who Holds It.” Accessed July 2, 2020.

  2. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. “Gross Federal Debt as a Percent of Gross Domestic Product,” Accessed April 6, 2020.

  3. Social Security. “Social Security Income, Cost, And Asset Reserves,” Accessed April 11, 2020.

  4. U.S. Treasury Department. “Historical Debt Outstanding,” Select time frame, then select year. Accessed April 11, 2020.

  5. CBO. “Estimated Impact of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act on Employment and Economic Output from October 2011 Through December 2011,” Page 13. Accessed April 11, 2020.

  6. White House. "The Budget for Fiscal Year 2014," Table S-11. Refer to U.S. Military Budget for methodology. Accessed April 6, 2020.

  7. Congressional Budget Office. "Manager's Amendment to Reconciliation Proposal," Page 2. Accessed April 11, 2020.

  8. The White House. “A Budget for America’s Future: FY 2021,” Table S-4. Accessed June 1, 2020.

  9. Obama White House. "FY 2011 Budget," Table S-10." Column "2009 Actual, ARRA," Row "Non-Security Agencies," The FY 2011 budget shows actual spending for FY 2009. Accessed April 11, 2020.