U.S. Presidents and the Largest Budget Deficits

When a president takes office, they inherit the previous administration's federal budget and budget deficit, which stands for their first year. This is because the federal fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 to Sep. 30, making it impossible for the incoming president to influence whether or not the budget has a deficit from January, when they take office, through the end of the fiscal year.

Although almost every U.S. president in the past half-century has run a record budget deficit at one time or another, the largest budget deficits in U.S. history were run by former President Donald Trump and his two immediate predecessors.

However, under the administration of Trump's successor, President Joe Biden, the deficit has gone down, even though his administration has had to deal with expenses connected to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key Takeaways

  • Donald Trump is one of three presidents with the biggest budget deficits in history.
  • The deficit topped $1 trillion in 2020.
  • By 2022, under Joe Biden's administration, the deficit has declined to some $900 billion.
  • The U.S. government has run a budget deficit for nearly all of the past 60 years.
  • A president's influence over a budget deficit doesn't start until after the fiscal year ends (September 20) during their first year in office.

The Rise of Deficit Spending

During the first half of the 20th century, the largest budget deficits were seen during the two world wars, and, relative to the size of the economy, the largest budget deficits in history were seen during World War II.

While the United States has run a budget deficit nearly every year since 1961, the deficits began to balloon during the 1970s and 1980s.

President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, vowing to limit the size of government. Still, during his eight years in the White House, the nation's deficit roughly doubled and topped $200 billion several times. Reagan's successor, George H.W. Bush, also presided over a record-breaking deficit of $290 billion in 1992.

Achieving a Budget Surplus

Under pressure from Republicans in Congress, President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, agreed to consistently cut the deficit and eventually oversaw the first budget surplus in decades.

The surplus stood at $236 billion in 2000, Clinton's final year in office. The $128 billion surplus recorded in 2001 was the last time a surplus has been seen in this century.

Return to Record Deficits

When he took office in 2001, President George W. Bush cited the Clinton surplus as evidence that taxes were too high. He pushed through significant tax cuts and oversaw an increase in spending, and the combination again drove the U.S. budget into the red.

The deficit reached a record $458 billion in 2008, Bush's last year in office, and would triple the following year as the Bush and Obama administrations faced the Global Financial Crisis.

How the Budget Process Works

When discussing presidents and budget deficits, it's essential to keep some things in mind. First, while a president proposes an annual budget, Congress must approve all spending. The president's power over the budget is never absolute. It can be severely limited if the opposition party holds a majority in either the House of Representatives or the Senate—and especially if they hold the majority in both.

Another thing to know is that "discretionary" spending accounts for only about one-third of the typical U.S. budget. The majority is "mandatory" spending that is dictated by law. The most significant sources of mandatory spending are Medicare and Social Security.

In addition, the federal fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30. This means that during a new president's first year in office, the budget that is in place was passed during their predecessor's term. However, incoming administrations can request additional spending upon taking office.

The Deficit Tops $1 Trillion

The U.S. budget deficit exploded in fiscal year 2009, ultimately reaching $1.4 trillion under President George W. Bush and the incoming Obama administrations struggled to contain the economic fallout from the financial crisis. Most of that deficit was created on Bush's watch, but Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress added hundreds of billions of dollars to it in early 2009.

The deficit would remain above $1 trillion through the 2012 fiscal year, but was slashed to as low as $440 billion in the later years of Obama's presidency.

Relative to the size of the nation's economy, the biggest U.S. deficits in history were seen during World War II.

Trump's Big Budget Deficit

President Trump continued the trend of pushing the deficit higher as he sought massive tax cuts and increased defense spending. His first budget, for the 2018 fiscal year, recorded a deficit of $779 billion.

Under Trump, the deficit reached $984 billion in 2019 and hit more than $1 trillion in 2020—and that was before Congress passed a $2 trillion stimulus package to fight the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden's Smaller Budget Deficit

One of Joe Biden's campaign promises was to reduce the federal deficit, and there's been progress on this account. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the federal budget deficit was $475 billion in the first five months of fiscal year 2022, which represented an amount lower than those for the years 2021 and 2020.

"It is less than half the shortfall recorded for the same months of fiscal year 2021 ($1.047 billion) and three-quarters of the deficit recorded in 2020 ($624 billion), just before the start of the coronavirus pandemic," noted the CBO. The turnaround is due to more robust revenues and fewer expenses—from October 2021 through February 2022, revenues were $371 billion (or 26%) higher, and outlays were $201 billion (or 8 percent) lower than they were during the same period a year ago," CBO estimates.

In Nov. 2022, the CBO reported that the budget deficit for FY 2022 was nearly $1.4 trillion, down from nearly $2.8 trillion in 2021. "The marked decline in the deficit from the previous year reflected waning spending in response to the coronavirus pandemic and increased revenues driven by higher inflation and the continued recovery of economic activity," the CBO reported.

Still, the deficit was "$339 billion larger than the shortfall estimated in CBO’s most recent baseline budgetary projections, which were issued in May 2022." The CBO attributed part of the rise in the estimated deficit to student debt forgiveness, which is currently on hold.

What Is a Budget Deficit?

A budget deficit occurs when expenses exceed revenue and indicate the financial health of a country. The government generally uses the term budget deficit when referring to spending rather than businesses or individuals. Accrued deficits form national debt.

What Is a Budget Surplus?

A budget surplus occurs when income exceeds expenditures. The term often refers to a government's financial state, as individuals have "savings" rather than a "budget surplus." A surplus is an indication that a government's finances are being effectively managed.

Which U.S. President Spent the Most?

Formers presidents George Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump all ran the largest U.S. deficits in history.

How Much Was the Deficit Left by President Reagan?

When President Regan left office after serving two terms, the deficit was 5% of the economy and interest payments on the debt were $169 billion in 1989.

The Bottom Line

The latest Biden budget figures show the dynamism of budget figures responding to challenges from war to political programs, such as debt relief. Whether Biden and the new Congress can continue to shrink the deficit for FY 2023 remains to be seen.

Article Sources
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  2. White House, Office of Management and Budget. "Historical Tables," Pages 27-28.

  3. White House, Office of Management and Budget. "Historical Tables," Pages 8-9 and 27-28.

  4. White House, Office of Management and Budget. "Historical Tables," Page 28.

  5. Allen Schick. "The Federal Budget: Politics, Policy, Process," Pages 24-26. Brookings Institution Press, 2004.

  6. The White House of President George W. Bush. "Radio Address by the President to the Nation."

  7. The White House of President George W. Bush. "President Bush Helped Americans Through Tax Relief."

  8. U.S. Congress. "Article I, Section 8, Clause 1: Spending Power."

  9. White House, Office of Management and Budget. "Historical Tables," Pages 143-144.

  10. White House, Office of Management and Budget. "Historical Tables," Page 6.

  11. White House, Office of Management and Budget. "Historical Tables," Page 29.

  12. White House. "President Donald J. Trump Is Providing Economic Relief to American Workers, Families, and Businesses Impacted by the Coronavirus."

  13. Congressional Business Office. "Monthly Business Report," Page 1

  14. Congressional Budget Office. "Monthly Budget Review: Summary for Fiscal Year 2022."

  15. The New York Times. "Reagan’s Deficit Dreamscape."

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