US & World Economies US Economy Fiscal Policy U.S. Budget Deficit by President Which president had the highest budget deficit? By Kimberly Amadeo Updated on December 20, 2021 Reviewed by Erika Rasure Reviewed by Erika Rasure Erika Rasure is globally-recognized as a leading consumer economics subject matter expert, researcher, and educator. She is a financial therapist and transformational coach, with a special interest in helping women learn how to invest. learn about our financial review board In This Article View All In This Article 4 Factors That Influence the Deficit The 4 Presidents With the Worst Deficits So Far What Budget Deficits Hide List of Presidents' Budget Deficits by Fiscal Year Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) President Donald Trump and former President Barack Obama walk out prior to Obama's departure during the 2017 presidential inauguration at the U.S. Capitol January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. Photo: Photo: Jack Gruber/Pool/Getty Images Which president ran the largest budget deficits? There are two ways to answer that question. The most popular way is to add up the deficits for each year the president was in office. However, a president doesn’t control the first year’s deficit. The previous president’s federal budget is still in effect for most of that year. The federal government's fiscal year runs from October 1 through September 30. As a result, a new president has no influence on the deficit for January through September of that first year in office. A better way to calculate the deficit is by looking at each president’s budget and then adding the deficits for those budgets. Key Takeaways A budget deficit results when the revenue from taxes is less than spending in a fiscal year. Presidents influence the debt through policy decisions, but they can't control mandatory spending enacted by Congress. The four presidents with the biggest deficits have been Barack Obama, Donald Trump, George W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan. 4 Factors That Influence the Deficit There are four factors that can influence each president's deficit. 1. Mandatory Budget The president has no control over the mandatory budget or its deficit. That includes Social Security and Medicare benefits. These are the two biggest expenses that any president has. The acts of Congress that created the programs determine how much must be spent. The president's budget can only estimate what these programs will cost. Unless the president gets Congress to change them, they must live with that spending. 2. Spending Control The Constitution gave Congress—not the president—the power to control spending. The president’s budget is just a starting point. Each house of Congress also prepares a discretionary spending budget. The two houses combine them into the final budget, which the president reviews and signs. If there's a hitch in the budget process, Congress can keep federal agencies running at current budget levels with a continuing resolution, or else federal agencies will shut down . There have been four shutdowns that lasted more than one business day. The first two happened in the winter of 1995-1996, and the third was in 2013. The fourth shutdown started in December 2018 and continued into January 2019. 3. Inherited Policies Presidents inherit their predecessors' policies. For example, presidents will have lower revenue from predecessors' tax cuts. They also must manage social programs initiated by prior acts of Congress. 4. Catastrophic Events Some presidents have to confront catastrophic events. President Obama faced the 2008 financial crisis. President George W. Bush had to respond to the 9/11 terrorist attack and hurricanes Katrina and Rita. These responses came with economic price tags. The 4 Presidents With the Worst Deficits So Far The four presidents with the worst deficits have been Barack Obama, Donald Trump, George W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan. Barack Obama President Obama had the largest deficits. By the end of his final budget, FY 2017, his budget deficits totaled $6.781 trillion over his eight years in office. That's a 58% increase from President George W. Bush's last budget. Obama took office during the Great Recession. He immediately needed to spend billions to stop it. He convinced Congress to add $253 billion from the economic stimulus package to Bush’s FY 2009 budget. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act added an additional $534 billion over the rest of Obama’s terms. In 2010, the Obama tax cut added $858 billion in deficits in its first two years. Federal income decreased due to lower tax receipts from the 2008 financial crisis. Note Both President Obama and President Bush were subject to higher mandatory spending than their predecessors were. Social security and Medicare benefits were eating up more of the budget, and healthcare costs were rising as the American population aged. In 2010, Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. It sought to reduce healthcare spending. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that the legislation would reduce federal deficits by $337 billion between 2017 and 2026. Donald Trump President Trump took office in 2017. By the end of his term four years later, he was estimated to hold $6.6 trillion in deficits, a 33% increase. The CBO predicted that the COVID-19 pandemic would increase the FY 2020 deficit by $2.2 trillion and the FY 2021 deficit by $600 billion. In March 2020, Trump declared a state of emergency as the pandemic broke out in the United States. Nonessential businesses closed, and Americans were urged to shelter in place. Congress passed the $2 trillion CARES Act, along with other stimulus measures. The combination of reduced tax receipts and increased stimulus spending created record deficit levels. George W. Bush President Bush took office in 2001. He racked up $3.293 trillion in deficits during his two terms, a 57% increase. Bush responded to the 9/11 attacks with the War on Terror, which raised military spending. The Bush tax cuts addressed the 2001 recession. Unfortunately, the cuts did not sunset when the recession was over, which depleted revenues during the 2008 recession. Bush attacked the financial crisis with the bank bailout. Congress added the bailout to the mandatory budget, where it became the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Ronald Reagan President Reagan took office in 1981. He added $1.412 trillion in deficits and almost doubled the debt during his eight years in office. He fought the 1982 recession by signing the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981. It reduced the highest marginal income tax rate from 70% to 50% and reduced the corporate income tax for small companies with taxable incomes of $50,000 or less. Reagan also increased government spending by 2.5% per year. That included a 35% increase in the defense budget and an expansion of Medicare. What Budget Deficits Hide All presidents can employ sleight of hand to reduce the appearance of the deficit. They can borrow from federal retirement funds in off-budget transactions. Note Each year's deficit adds to the debt. But the total amount a president adds to the debt each year is usually more than the deficit. For example, the Social Security Trust Fund has run a surplus since 1987. There have been 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 Treasurys. That makes the deficit by year less than what's added to the debt by year. For example, $8.588 trillion was added to the national debt under President Obama. But his total budget deficits totaled $6.781 trillion. Similarly, President Bush's stated budget deficits totaled $3.293 trillion. But Bush added $5.849 trillion to the debt. The presidents who had the highest deficits are still those who contributed the most to the debt. List of Presidents' Budget Deficits by Fiscal Year Although most other presidents have run deficits, none has yet came close to the four detailed above. One partial explanation is that the U.S. economy, as measured by gross domestic product (GDP), was so much smaller for other presidents. For example, by the end of 1981, GDP was only $3.2 trillion, one-fifth of the roughly $16.3 trillion GDP by the end of 2012. Below are each president's annual budget deficits since Woodrow Wilson. President Donald Trump Total Actual plus Budgeted = $6.612 trillion, a 33% increase FY 2021: $966 billion budgeted + $600 billion from pandemic impact = $1.566 trillionFY 2020: $1.083 trillion budgeted + $2.2 trillion from pandemic = $3.283 trillionFY 2019: $984 billionFY 2018: $779 billion President Barack Obama Total = $6.781 trillion, a 58% increase FY 2017: $665 billion. Although Trump requested additional spending, Congress did not approve it.FY 2016: $585 billionFY 2015: $442 billionFY 2014: $485 billionFY 2013: $680 billionFY 2012: $1.077 trillionFY 2011: $1.300 trillionFY 2010: $1.5 trillion. This is the sum of $1.294 trillion and $253 billion from the Obama Stimulus Act that was attached to the FY 2009 budget. President George W. Bush Total = $3.293 trillion, a 57% increase FY 2009: $1.16 trillion. This amount is calculated from $1.413 trillion, minus $253 billion from Obama's Stimulus Act.FY 2008: $459 billionFY 2007: $161 billionFY 2006: $248 billionFY 2005: $318 billionFY 2004: $413 billionFY 2003: $378 billionFY 2002: $158 billion President Bill Clinton Total = $63 billion surplus, a 1% decrease FY 2001: $128 billion surplusFY 2000: $236 billion surplusFY 1999: $126 billion surplusFY 1998: $69 billion surplusFY 1997: $22 billionFY 1996: $107 billionFY 1995: $164 billionFY 1994: $203 billion President George H.W. Bush Total = $1.036 trillion, a 36% increase FY 1993: $255 billionFY 1992: $290 billionFY 1991: $269 billionFY 1990: $221 billion President Ronald Reagan Total = $1.412 trillion, a 142% increase FY 1989: $153 billionFY 1988: $155 billionFY 1987: $150 billionFY 1986: $221 billionFY 1985: $212 billionFY 1984: $185 billionFY 1983: $208 billionFY 1982: $128 billion President Jimmy Carter Total = $253 billion, a 36% increase FY 1981: $79 billionFY 1980: $74 billionFY 1979: $41 billionFY 1978: $59 billion President Gerald Ford Total = $181 billion, a 38% increase FY 1977: $54 billionFY 1976: $74 billionFY 1975: $53 billion President Richard Nixon Total = $70 billion, a 20% increase FY 1974: $6 billionFY 1973: $15 billionFY 1972: $23 billionFY 1971: $23 billionFY 1970: $3 billion President Lyndon B. Johnson Total = $36 billion, an 11% increase FY 1969: $3 billion surplusFY 1968: $25 billionFY 1967: $9 billionFY 1966: $4 billionFY 1965: $1 billion President John F. Kennedy Total = $18 billion, a 6% increase FY 1964: $6 billionFY 1963: $5 billionFY 1962: $7 billion President Dwight Eisenhower Total = $15 billion, a 6% increase FY 1961: $3 billionFY 1960: $0 billion with a slight surplusFY 1959: $13 billionFY 1958: $3 billionFY 1957: $3 billion surplusFY 1956: $4 billion surplusFY 1955: $3 billionFY 1954: $1 billion President Harry Truman Total = $5 billion, a 2% increase FY 1953: $6 billionFY 1952: $2 billionFY 1951: $6 billion surplusFY 1950: $3 billionFY 1949: $1 billion surplusFY 1948: $12 billion surplusFY 1947: $4 billion surplusFY 1946: $16 billion President Franklin D. Roosevelt Total = $194 billion, a 186% increase FY 1945: $48 billionFY 1944: $48 billionFY 1943: $55 billionFY 1942: $21 billionFY 1941: $5 billionFY 1940: $3 billionFY 1939: $3 billionFY 1938: $0 billion with a slight deficitFY 1937: $2 billionFY 1936: $4 billionFY 1935: $3 billionFY 1934: $4 billion President Herbert Hoover Total = $5 billion, a 30% increase FY 1933: $3 billionFY 1932: $3 billionFY 1931: $0 billion (slight deficit)FY 1930: $1 billion surplus President Calvin Coolidge Total = $5 billion surplus, a 26% decrease FY 1929: $1 billion surplusFY 1928: $1 billion surplusFY 1927: $1 billion surplusFY 1926: $1 billion surplusFY 1925: $1 billion surplusFY 1924: $1 billion surplus President Warren G. Harding Total = $1 billion surplus, a 6% decrease FY 1923: $1 billion surplusFY 1922: $0 billion with a slight surplus President Woodrow Wilson Total = $22 billion, a 775% increase FY 1921: $1 billion surplusFY 1920: $0 billion with a slight surplusFY 1919: $13 billionFY 1918: $9 billionFY 1917: $1 billionFY 1916: $0 billion with a slight surplusFY 1915: $0 billion with a slight surplusFY 1914: $0 billion Previous Years FY 1789 through FY 1913: $1 billion surplus Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) Have any presidents not had a deficit? Various presidents have had individual years with a surplus instead of a deficit. Most recently, Bill Clinton had four consecutive years of surplus, from 1998 to 2001. Since the 1960s, however, most presidents have posted a budget deficit each year. What causes a budget deficit? In the most basic sense, a budget deficit is a result of spending more than anticipated, dealing with unexpected revenue shortfalls, or some combination of both. This could happen as a result of a natural disaster, a recession, unexpected job losses, or many other factors. In many cases, the government plans for a deficit because it hopes to use increased spending to stimulate the economy. What does a budget deficit do to the national debt? If there is a budget deficit, that means the national debt is also growing, because the only way to finance the deficit is to sell more government securities, thus increasing the debt. The debt is, essentially, an accumulation of each year's deficits minus any surpluses. Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! Tell us why! Other Submit Sources The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. USA.gov. "Budget of the U.S. Government." U.S. House of Representatives History, Art, and Archives. "Power of the Purse." Congressional Budget Office. "What Is the Difference Between Mandatory and Discretionary Spending?" Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. "Q&A: Everything You Should Know About Government Shutdowns." Treasury.gov. "The Financial Crisis Response in Charts April 2012," Page 4. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. "Federal Surplus or Deficit." Congressional Budget Office. "Estimated Impact of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act on Employment and Economic Output in 2014." HealthCare.gov. "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act." Congressional Budget Office. "American Health Care Act," Page 1. Congressional Budget Office. "An Update to the Economic Outlook: 2020 to 2030." Office of Management and Budget. “Historical Tables,” Download Table 1.1 - Summary of Receipts, Outlays, and Surpluses or Deficits: 1789-2021. George Bush White House Archives. "President Bush's Tax Relief." U.S. Department of Treasury. "Troubled Asset Relief Program." Congress.gov. "H.R.4242 - Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981." Social Security. "Social Security Income, Cost, And Asset Reserves." TreasuryDirect.gov. "Debt to the Penny." Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. "Gross Domestic Product (GDP)." Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. "Federal Surplus or Deficit."