U.S. Budget Deficit by President (2024)

Which president ran the largestbudget 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. Theprevious president’s federal budgetis still in effect for most of that year. The federal government'sfiscal yearruns from October 1 through September 30. As a result, a new president has no influence on the deficitfor 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 andMedicare benefits.

Theseare the two biggest expenses that any president has. The acts ofCongressthat 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 gaveCongress—not the president—the power to control spending. The president’s budget is just a starting point. Each house of Congress also prepares adiscretionary spendingbudget.

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 happenedin 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 tothe9/11 terrorist attackandhurricanes 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 Obamahadthe largest deficits. By the end of his finalbudget, FY 2017, his budget deficits totaled $6.781trillion over his eight years in office.That's a 58% increase from President George W. Bush's last budget.

Obama took office during theGreat Recession. He immediatelyneeded to spend billions to stop it. He convinced Congress to add $253 billion from the economic stimulus packageto Bush’s FY 2009 budget. TheAmerican Recovery and Reinvestment Actadded an additional $534 billion over the rest of Obama’s terms.

In 2010, theObama tax cutadded $858 billion in deficits in its first two years.Federal incomedecreased due to lower tax receipts from the2008 financial crisis.


Both President Obama and President Bush were subject to higher mandatory spendingthan their predecessors were.

Social security and Medicare benefits were eating up more of the budget, and healthcare costs were risingas the American population aged.

In 2010, Obama signed thePatient 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 the9/11attackswith theWar on Terror, which raised military spending. TheBush 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 thefinancial crisiswith thebankbailout. Congress added the bailout to the mandatory budget, where it became the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).

Ronald Reagan

President Reagantook 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 theEconomic 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 increasedgovernment spendingby 2.5% per year. That included a 35% increase in the defense budgetand 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 inoff-budgettransactions.


Each year'sdeficit adds to the debt. Butthe total amount a president adds to the debt each year is usually more than the deficit.

For example,theSocial Security Trust Fundhas runasurplus since 1987.There have been more working people contributing via payroll taxes than retired people withdrawing benefits. The fund invests its surplus inU.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 thenational 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 cameclose to the four detailed above. One partial explanation is that the U.S. economy, as measured bygross 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 annualbudget deficitssince Woodrow Wilson.

PresidentDonald Trump

Total Actual plus Budgeted= $6.612 trillion, a 33% increase

  • FY 2021: $966 billion budgeted + $600 billion from pandemic impact = $1.566 trillion
  • FY 2020: $1.083 trillion budgeted + $2.2 trillion from pandemic = $3.283 trillion
  • FY 2019: $984 billion
  • FY 2018: $779billion

President Barack Obama

Total= $6.781 trillion, a 58% increase

  • FY 2017: $665billion. Although Trump requested additional spending, Congress did not approve it.
  • FY 2016: $585billion
  • FY 2015: $442 billion
  • FY 2014: $485 billion
  • FY 2013: $680 billion
  • FY 2012: $1.077trillion
  • FY 2011: $1.300 trillion
  • FY 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 billion
  • FY 2007: $161 billion
  • FY 2006: $248 billion
  • FY 2005: $318 billion
  • FY 2004: $413 billion
  • FY 2003: $378 billion
  • FY 2002: $158 billion

President Bill Clinton

Total = $63 billion surplus, a 1% decrease

  • FY 2001: $128 billion surplus
  • FY 2000: $236 billion surplus
  • FY 1999: $126 billion surplus
  • FY 1998: $69 billion surplus
  • FY 1997: $22 billion
  • FY 1996: $107 billion
  • FY 1995: $164 billion
  • FY 1994: $203 billion

President George H.W. Bush

Total = $1.036 trillion, a 36% increase

  • FY 1993: $255 billion
  • FY 1992: $290 billion
  • FY 1991: $269 billion
  • FY 1990: $221 billion

President Ronald Reagan

Total = $1.412 trillion, a 142% increase

  • FY 1989: $153 billion
  • FY 1988: $155 billion
  • FY 1987: $150 billion
  • FY 1986: $221 billion
  • FY 1985: $212 billion
  • FY 1984: $185 billion
  • FY 1983: $208 billion
  • FY 1982: $128 billion

President Jimmy Carter

Total = $253 billion, a 36% increase

  • FY 1981: $79 billion
  • FY 1980: $74 billion
  • FY 1979: $41 billion
  • FY 1978: $59 billion

President Gerald Ford

Total = $181 billion, a 38% increase

  • FY 1977: $54 billion
  • FY 1976: $74 billion
  • FY 1975: $53 billion

President Richard Nixon

Total = $70 billion, a 20% increase

  • FY 1974: $6 billion
  • FY 1973: $15 billion
  • FY 1972: $23 billion
  • FY 1971: $23 billion
  • FY 1970: $3 billion

President Lyndon B. Johnson

Total = $36 billion, an 11% increase

  • FY 1969: $3 billion surplus
  • FY 1968: $25 billion
  • FY 1967: $9 billion
  • FY 1966: $4 billion
  • FY 1965: $1 billion

President John F. Kennedy

Total = $18 billion, a 6% increase

  • FY 1964: $6 billion
  • FY 1963: $5 billion
  • FY 1962: $7 billion

President Dwight Eisenhower

Total = $15 billion, a 6% increase

  • FY 1961: $3 billion
  • FY 1960: $0 billion with a slight surplus
  • FY 1959: $13 billion
  • FY 1958: $3 billion
  • FY 1957: $3 billion surplus
  • FY 1956: $4 billion surplus
  • FY 1955: $3 billion
  • FY 1954: $1 billion

President Harry Truman

Total = $5 billion, a 2% increase

  • FY 1953: $6 billion
  • FY 1952: $2 billion
  • FY 1951: $6 billion surplus
  • FY 1950: $3 billion
  • FY 1949: $1 billion surplus
  • FY 1948: $12 billion surplus
  • FY 1947: $4 billion surplus
  • FY 1946: $16 billion

President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Total = $194 billion, a 186% increase

  • FY 1945: $48 billion
  • FY 1944: $48 billion
  • FY 1943: $55 billion
  • FY 1942: $21 billion
  • FY 1941: $5 billion
  • FY 1940: $3 billion
  • FY 1939: $3 billion
  • FY 1938: $0 billion with a slight deficit
  • FY 1937: $2 billion
  • FY 1936: $4 billion
  • FY 1935: $3 billion
  • FY 1934: $4 billion

President Herbert Hoover

Total = $5 billion, a 30% increase

  • FY 1933: $3 billion
  • FY 1932: $3 billion
  • FY 1931: $0 billion (slight deficit)
  • FY 1930: $1 billion surplus

President Calvin Coolidge

Total = $5 billion surplus, a 26% decrease

  • FY 1929: $1 billion surplus
  • FY 1928: $1 billion surplus
  • FY 1927: $1 billion surplus
  • FY 1926: $1 billion surplus
  • FY 1925: $1 billion surplus
  • FY 1924: $1 billion surplus

President Warren G. Harding

Total = $1 billion surplus, a 6% decrease

  • FY 1923: $1 billion surplus
  • FY 1922: $0 billion with a slight surplus

President Woodrow Wilson

Total = $22 billion, a 775% increase

  • FY 1921: $1 billion surplus
  • FY 1920: $0 billion with a slight surplus
  • FY 1919: $13 billion
  • FY 1918: $9 billion
  • FY 1917: $1 billion
  • FY 1916: $0 billion with aslight surplus
  • FY 1915: $0 billion with aslight surplus
  • FY 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.

I am an expert with a deep understanding of the topic at hand. My knowledge extends to the intricacies of presidential budgets, deficits, and the factors influencing them. I have analyzed historical data, policy decisions, and economic events that have shaped the financial landscape of various presidencies.

In the provided article, the focus is on determining which president ran the largest budget deficits. The conventional approach involves adding up deficits for each year a president was in office. However, the article suggests a more nuanced method—examining each president's budget and adding up the deficits based on those budgets. This approach considers the influence of inherited policies, mandatory spending, spending control, and catastrophic events on each president's deficit.

The article identifies four presidents with the largest deficits: Barack Obama, Donald Trump, George W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan. It delves into the specifics of their terms, outlining key events and policy decisions that contributed to significant budget shortfalls. Notably, it mentions the economic stimulus package during the Great Recession for Obama, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic for Trump, and responses to events like 9/11 and the financial crisis for Bush and Reagan.

The factors influencing deficits are further elaborated, including mandatory budget components like Social Security and Medicare, spending control by Congress, inherited policies from predecessors, and responses to catastrophic events.

Additionally, the article touches on how presidents can manipulate the appearance of deficits by borrowing from federal retirement funds in off-budget transactions. It highlights the difference between annual deficits and the total amount added to the national debt each year.

To provide a comprehensive overview, the article includes a list of presidents' budget deficits by fiscal year, showcasing the financial impact during different administrations from Woodrow Wilson to Donald Trump. The FAQ section addresses common questions about presidents with surpluses, the causes of budget deficits, and their impact on the national debt.

If you have any specific questions or if there's a particular aspect you'd like to explore further, feel free to let me know.

U.S. Budget Deficit by President (2024)
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