How much of the $31 trillion of U.S. national debt is the 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 about $31.4 trillion as of March 2023.
- A president’s decisions on how to spend government money, such as funding wars, or providing government aid, affect national debt.
- President Franklin D. Roosevelt contributed the largest percentage increase to U.S. national debt to date.
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 Sept. 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 overall debt levels. Debt is the running total of what the government owes to its creditors, including budget deficits and surpluses.
While the president does have a huge impact on national debt, budget deficits—which lead to more debt—also occur in response to unexpected events, such as increased defense spending after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, or government aid 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.
It’s important to note that presidents who had longer terms often have larger changes in the debt than those who served shorter terms. The data above is also 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 $65 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 spent about $805 billion on the War on Terror after the al-Qaeda attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Paying for wars in Afghanistan and Iran caused military spending to reach record levels of more than $600 billion in 2009.
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, then-President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), an $831 billion fiscal stimulus package with the goal of creating and recovering jobs lost during the recession.
Similarly in 2020, when the nationwide COVID-19 outbreak caused a sharp increase in unemployment and many businesses to shut down, Congress passed a $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 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. Biden’s stimulus package cost about $1.9 trillion and included extended unemployment benefits, 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 by about $23 billion left by President William Taft before him.
3. Ronald Reagan (1981–1989)
President Ronald Reagan added $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 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. 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 $831 billion stimulus package and $858 billion in tax cuts contributed to the rise in national debt during his presidency.
National Debt Continues to Rise Under President Biden
So far, the national debt has grown by about $2.5 trillion since Biden took office in 2021, largely driven by COVID-19 relief measures meant to facilitate recovery. According to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), Biden’s American Rescue Plan would add $1.9 trillion to 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 more than $420 billion over 10 years.
Although in limbo in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court, Biden’s student loan forgiveness program, which would cancel up to $20,000 of federally held student loan debt per borrower, would cost the federal government about $305 billion total over 10 years, according to an estimate by the U.S. Department of Education.
However, Biden’s 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.
As of March 2023, the U.S. national debt stands at $31.46 trillion. In January, 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, which could come this summer if the debt ceiling isn’t raised or abolished altogether. The debt ceiling was last raised in late 2021 by Biden and Congress. It was raised to $31 trillion—a limit that has now been reached.
What Is the National Debt Today?
As of April 2023, the U.S. national debt stands at $31.46 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 261.1% 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 percentage increase in U.S. history.
The Bottom Line
Presidents have had a significant impact on the U.S. national debt throughout the nation’s history. While each president has allocated government funds for specific policies and initiatives that reflect the priorities of their administration, federal spending isn’t always under the control of the president, and much more may be required in times of unforeseen events, such as economic turmoil, war, and other national and global events such as a pandemic.