How much of the over $33 trillion of U.S. national debt is each president responsible for, and which presidents increased the debt the most?
Over the past 60 years, nearly every U.S. president has run a record budget deficit at some point, with former Presidents Donald Trump, Barack Obama, and George W. Bush running the largest U.S. budget deficits in history.
The U.S. national debt has continued to climb over the years with each president, as different national and global events have affected debt, and as each president’s budget reflects the administration’s priorities for the country. Here’s a look at how to measure debt by president, and which U.S. presidents contributed the most to the nation’s overall debt.?
- U.S. national debt stands at over $33 trillion as of September 2023.
- A president’s decisions on how to spend government money, such as funding wars or providing government aid, affect the national debt.
- President Franklin D. Roosevelt contributed the largest percentage increase to U.S. national debt to date.
- Presidents who serve longer terms often contribute more to the national debt than those who serve shorter terms.
Measuring Debt by President
National debt can be measured by comparing the national debt level when a president enters office to the level when a president leaves, and calculating the percentage of increase in debt during the presidency. However, it is important to note that a president doesn’t have much influence over the national debt during their first year in office. Presidential influence over the budget and national debt doesn’t start until after the federal fiscal year ends on September 30, during the new president’s first year in office.
Although the terms are often used interchangeably, debt and deficit are different. A budget deficit occurs when expenses exceed revenue, and it increases the total national debt. When revenue exceeds expenses, there is a budget surplus which can be used to reduce the national debt. In any given year, the government's budget and spending can result in a deficit or surplus. Debt is the running total of what the government owes to its creditors.
The president and government's policies and decisions are what create budget deficits and add to the national debt. Throughout history, the president's response to major events has typically created massive budget deficits, adding substantial amounts to our national debt. Two examples of this would be the response to the September 11th terror attacks, and the government's actions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Change in Total U.S. Debt by President?
Below is a table of debt by U.S. presidents in the 20th and 21st centuries.
The data above is based on U.S. fiscal years that most closely align with a president’s inauguration.
What Type of Presidential Decisions Affect National Debt??
Funding wars is one of the main ways that the president can increase national debt. In fact, before 1930, almost all the budget deficits run by the American government were the results of wars. The Civil War left the U.S. government owing more than $2.6 billion at the end of the war in 1865. Just five years earlier, in 1860, the year before the Civil War started, the national debt was only $64.8 million.?
During World War II in the 1940s, then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s spending on the war effort created some of the largest deficits as a percentage of total gross domestic product (GDP) in American history. The U.S. government borrowed about $211 billion to help pay for WWII.
In the early 2000s, then-President George W. Bush launched the invasion of Afghanistan and global War on Terror following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. Less than two years later in March 2023, President Bush also invaded Iraq. The cost of these wars over 20 years was estimated at around $8 trillion dollars in September 2021. These wars began by President George W. Bush added significantly to our national debt during his presidency and during the presidencies of Obama and Trump. The cost of the wars is also reflected in the yearly military budget, which reached record levels of more than $600 billion in 2009 as Bush's presidency ended.
Government Relief: Recessions, Pandemic
Actions taken by the government to provide relief during recessions or during a public health crisis like the pandemic are also ways that a president can add to national debt.?
To fight the Great Recession that started in 2008, President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) in 2009 after he took office earlier that year. The $832 billion fiscal stimulus package was intended to create jobs and recover jobs lost during the recession.
Similarly in 2020, when the government's response to the outbreak of COVID-19 shut down businesses and caused a sharp rise in unemployment, Congress passed a $2.2 trillion stimulus bill called the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which then-President Donald Trump signed into law in March 2020. The $2.2 trillion price tag makes it the largest financial rescue package in U.S. history. The CARES Act authorized direct payments to American families of $1,200 per adult plus $500 per child for households earning up to $75,000 annually.
The following year, in March 2021, President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act to provide further relief to American families and businesses as they recovered from the pandemic. 叠颈诲别苍’蝉 stimulus package cost about $1.9 trillion, and included extended unemployment benefits, direct payments to Americans, increased the Child Tax Credit, and subsidized COVID-19 testing and vaccination programs.
Top 5 Presidents Who Added to National Debt by Percentage?
Here are the top five presidents in modern U.S. history who recorded the largest percentage increase to national debt during their term(s) in office.?
1. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–1945)
President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) contributed the largest percentage increase to U.S. national debt to date. Roosevelt entered office when the United States was in the depths of the Great Depression, the longest economic recession in modern history. FDR’s New Deal, a series of government-funded programs to fight the devastating effects of the Great Depression, added significantly to the national debt.
The U.S. national debt went up when FDR took office because of the New Deal. But the biggest contributor to the national debt under FDR was World War II.
2. Woodrow Wilson (1913–1921)
President Woodrow Wilson added to the U.S. national debt with funding war efforts during World War I. Under Wilson, U.S. government debt increased from over $2.9 billion in 1913 when he took office to over $23.9 billion when he left office in 1921.
3. Ronald Reagan (1981–1989)
President Ronald Reagan added added over $1.6 trillion to the U.S. national debt. The actor-turned-president supported supply-side economics and believed government intervention reduced economic growth. His economic policies involved widespread tax cuts, decreased social spending, and more military spending. Reagan increased defense spending by 35% in his two terms as president.
4. George W. Bush (2001–2009)
President George W. Bush added about $4 trillion to the U.S. national debt. Military spending increased to record levels under Bush, due to launching the war in Afghanistan and War on Terror in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks, as well as the Iraq War in 2003. Additionally, Bush supported and signed into law significant tax cuts which contributed to increases in national debt. Bush and his administration also dealt with recessions in 2001 and 2008 (the Great Recession).
5. Barack Obama (2009–2017)
When looking at which president added the most to national debt in dollar amounts, President Barack Obama takes the lead. Obama’s efforts to spur recovery from the Great Recession through his $832 billion stimulus package and $858 billion in tax cuts contributed to the rise in national debt during his presidency.
Presidents who serve longer terms often have larger changes in the debt than those who serve shorter terms.
National Debt Continues to Rise Under President Biden
So far, the national debt has grown by over $5.39 trillion since Biden took office in 2021, largely driven by COVID-19 relief measures. If we measure from the start of the new fiscal year on October 1st, 2021 the debt has grown by over $4.64 trillion under President Biden. According to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), 叠颈诲别苍’蝉 American Rescue Plan would add $1.9 trillion to the national debt by 2031.?
Biden also signed a bipartisan infrastructure bill into law in November 2021. It provides funding for improvements to roads, bridges, public transit, drinking water, and expanded access to the internet, among other initiatives. The plan is estimated to cost around $375 billion over 10 years.
叠颈诲别苍’蝉 student loan forgiveness program, which would have canceled up to $20,000 of federally held student loan debt per borrower, was expected to cost the federal government about $305 billion total over 10 years, according to an estimate by the U.S. Department of Education.
However, that plan was overturned by the Supreme Court in June 2023. A new plan, called the Saving on a Valuable Education (SAVE) plan, which officially became available to student loan borrowers in August 2023, will provide a new path to relief for borrowers. The plan could cost $230 billion over 10 years.
叠颈诲别苍’蝉 Inflation Reduction Act, which aims to invest in green energy initiatives and reduce healthcare costs, could actually reduce the deficit by $58 billion over the next decade, according to an estimate by the CBO.
In January 2023, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen announced that the government hit its debt ceiling, the maximum amount of money that the federal government can legally borrow. When this happens, the U.S. Treasury needs to find other ways to pay expenses until the debt ceiling is raised by Congress.
Yellen said the U.S. government would begin taking “extraordinary measures” to prevent a sovereign default. A hotly contested deal was finally struck between Democrats and Republicans in June, suspending the debt ceiling and allowing further spending until 2025.
The debt ceiling was last raised in late 2021 by Biden and Congress. It was raised to about $31.4 trillion—a limit that has now been raised and exceeded with the legislation of June 2023. As of September 2023, the U.S. national debt stands at over $33 trillion.
What Is the National Debt Today?
As of September 2023, the U.S. national debt has passed $33 trillion.?
Which Country Has the Highest National Debt?
The United States has the highest national debt in the world by amount.?However, Japan has the highest national debt in terms of gross domestic product (GDP)—Japan’s national debt makes up 258.2% of its GDP.
Which President Contributed the Most to U.S. National Debt?
The national debt increased by nearly 40 times under Abraham Lincoln from 1861 to 1865—the largest multiple of increase in U.S. history. Of those who were president in either the 20th or 21st century, Franklin D. Roosevelt contributed to the largest percent increase in national debt. Recent presidents Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and George W. Bush presided over the three largest increases in terms of dollar amounts. Current President Joe Biden is on pace to join or surpass them.
The Bottom Line
Presidents have had a significant impact on the U.S. national debt throughout the nation’s history. Each president has worked to allocate government funds for specific policies and initiatives that reflect the priorities of their administration. The president no doubt plays a large role in what gets spent and how much. However, spending is not all on the president. In our country we have the separation of powers where Congress must vote on appropriations and initiatives proposed by the president. Members of Congress can introduce their own proposals as well which must be voted on, and then signed by the president. So we should not forget the role Congress plays in our national debt. Additionally, unforeseen events, such as economic turmoil, natural disasters, or war, may require a government response that sparks significant spending that was not planned for. However, the decision to respond, how to respond, and how much to spend on the response is still a decision made by the president, his administration, and Congress.