US Debt by President: By Dollar and Percentage

Who increased the U.S. debt the most? That depends on how you measure it.

US President Barack Obama (L) former President Bill Clinton (C) and former President George W. Bush (R) walk to the Rose Garden
Photo:

Mark Wilson/Staff/Getty Images

What's the best way to determine how much each president has contributed to our nation's $31 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 October 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.

Note

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 in dollar terms ($8.6 trillion) and was fifth by percentage at 74%. Obama fought the Great Recession with an $831 billion economic stimulus package and added $858 billion through tax cuts. Even though the fiscal year 2009 budget was set by President Bush, Obama added to it with the Economic Stimulus Act in 2009.

US 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.

Joe Biden

On Oct. 1, 2021, 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 Joe Biden's budget included a deficit of $1.84 trillion, and by August 2022, the national debt had grown to $30.8 trillion.

When Biden took office, the economy and household finances were still reeling from the pandemic, and Biden continued his predecessor’s policy of spending heavily to keep households afloat. In March 2021, Biden signed the American Rescue Plan, which showered taxpayers with pandemic relief cash in the form of stimulus checks and extra unemployment payments, and temporarily expanded child tax credits, plus other help. It all came with a cost to future budgets: The bill would add $1.9 trillion to the national debt by 2031, the Congressional Budget Office estimated.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill, signed by Biden in November 2021, which provided new funding for highways, railways, broadband Internet expansion and other projects, added to the debt too, with estimates on its 10-year impact ranging from $374 billion to $400 billion, depending on how it’s calculated. 

Some of Biden’s actions cut the other way. In August 2022, Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, an anti-climate change bill that spent money on new green energy programs and tax credits as well as to make drugs cheaper for patients, and paid for it by raising taxes on corporations and the ultra-wealthy. The bill should reduce the national debt by $102 billion by 2031, the CBO estimated.

Biden followed up this bill with an executive action that forgave up to $10,000 of federal student loan debt per borrower, and $20,000 for those who received Pell Grants. He also proposed a new, cheaper income-driven student loan repayment program for future borrowers. However, he also announced that student loan interest and required payments, both of which had been frozen since the pandemic hit, would resume in January 2023.

In August 2022, the government did not have an official estimate for how these measures would impact the national debt. One piece of it—forgiving $10,000 of debt per student loan borrower—would cost $329.7 billion over 10 years, according to an estimate by the Wharton School of Business.

Donald Trump

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 October 1, 2020, and October 1, 2021.

  • FY 2021: $1.5 trillion
  • FY 2020: $4.2 trillion
  • FY 2019: $1.2 trillion
  • FY 2018: $1.3 trillion

Barack Obama

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

Bill Clinton

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

Ronald Reagan

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

Jimmy Carter

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

Gerald Ford

President Ford added $223.7 billion to the debt.

  • FY 1977: $78.4 billion
  • FY 1976: $87.2 billion
  • FY 1975: $58.1 billion

Richard Nixon

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

Dwight Eisenhower

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

Harry Truman

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

Herbert Hoover

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

Calvin Coolidge

President Coolidge reduced the national debt by about $5.3 billion. 

  • FY 1929: $673 million 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

Woodrow Wilson

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)

Note

All presidents from 1790 to 1913 added a total of $2.8 billion to the national debt.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Which president has put the United States the most in debt?

President Joe Biden is on track to add the most to the budget deficit, largely due to the costs associated with continuing to battle the coronavirus pandemic. In late 2021, Congress voted to raise the debt ceiling.

Why does the United States owe so much debt?

Continued decreases in the amount of taxes paid by corporations and the wealthiest Americans have resulted in less money coming in. At the same time, spending on pandemic relief and the military continues to increase.

Updated by
Hilarey Gould
Hilarey Gould headshot for The Balance
Hilarey Gould has spent 10+ years in the digital media space, where she's developed a passion for helping people understand economics, saving, investing, credit card perks, mortgage rates, and more. Hilarey is the editorial director for The Balance and has held full-time and freelance roles at a variety of financial media companies including realtor.com, Bankrate, and SmartAsset. She has a master's in journalism from the University of Missouri, and a bachelor's in journalism and professional writing from The College of New Jersey (TCNJ).
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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.
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  8. TreasuryDirect. "Historical Debt Outstanding – Annual," Select Time Period in "Choose Years."

  9. The White House. "Budget of the U.S. Government Fiscal Year 2022," Page 37.

  10. Congressional Budget Office. "Estimated Budget Effects of the American Rescue Plan of 2021."

  11. Committee For a Responsible Federal Budget. "Infrastructure Plan Will Add $400 Billion to the Deficit, CBO Finds."

  12. Eno Center for Transportation. "How Much Will the Infrastructure Bill Really Add to the Deficit?"

  13. Congressional Budget Office. "Estimated Budgetary Effects of H.R. 5376, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022."

  14. The White House. "FACT SHEET: President Biden Announces Student Loan Relief for Borrowers Who Need It Most."

  15. Penn Wharton. "Forgiving Student Loans: Budgetary Costs and Distributional Impact."

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  17. GovInfo.gov. "FY 2011 Budget." Table S-10." Column "2009 Actual, ARRA," Row "Non-Security Agencies." Page 173.

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