U.S. Federal Deficits, Presidents, and Congress

Stephen Bloch

Last update: Oct 14, 2017
Numbers for Sept 29, 2017

Some time in early 2004, I ran across a Web site maintained by the Department of the Treasury, listing the U.S. National Debt year by year since 1791. The numbers by themselves are too big to be meaningful, so I put them into a spreadsheet to see if I could extract any interesting trends and patterns over time.

When talking about a politically-charged issue like Federal budget deficits, it's hard to avoid being accused of shilling for one political faction or another, but I've tried to keep things rigorously objective, minimizing the judgment calls I needed to make lest my own political leanings bias the results. Over the years, I've gotten criticism from both left-wingers and right-wingers about this page, so I think I've been at least somewhat successful.

Assuming you mostly want to see the results, I'll get straight to them, but I recommend that you read the judgment calls and procedures I used to produce these tables.

Table 1: Deficit by year, corrected for inflation

These are the data from which all of the following tables are drawn, organized by year so you can draw your own conclusions about Presidents, Congresses, tax rates, etc.

The inflation-adjusted debt (seventh) column is simply the public debt expressed in 1983 dollars.

The deficit (eighth) column is the difference between one year's inflation-adjusted debt and the previous year's (annualized in years that for various reasons were longer or shorter than 12 months). I display this both as a number and as a bar-graph.

Fiscal year President's party Senate majority party House majority party Top-bracket marginal income tax rate National debt
National debt
(millions of 1983 dollars)
(millions of 1983 dollars)
Deficit in 1983 dollars ($=10 billion)
10/2016-9/2017 DR R R 39.6% $20,373,231 $8,298,926 $190,663 $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
12/2015-9/2016 D R R 39.6% $19,573,445 $8,126,718 $271,881 (annualized) $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
10/2014-11/2015 D D R R 39.6% $18,827,323 $7,900,151 $353,160 (annualized) $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
11/2013-9/2014 D D R 39.6% $17,824,071 $7,488,130 $155,132
10/2012-10/2013DD R39.6% $17,156,117$7,345,926$403,076
10/2011-9/2012DD R35% $16,066,241 $6,942,850 $424,094 $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
10/2010-9/2011DD D R35% $14,790,340 $6,518,756$310,330 $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
10/2009-9/2010D D D 35% $13,561,623$6,208,425$693,824 $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
10/2008-9/2009R D D D 35% $11,909,829 $5,514,601 $932,561 $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
10/2007-9/2008RDD35% $10,024,724$4,582,040$261,615 $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
10/2006-9/2007RRDRD35% $9,007,653$4,320,424$127,731 $$$$$$$$$$$$$
10/2005-9/2006RRR35% $8,506,973$4,192,692$202,396 $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
10/2004-9/2005RRR35% $7,932,709$3,990,296$104,539 $$$$$$$$$$
10/2003-9/2004RRR35% $7,379,052$3,885,757$223,105 $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
10/2002-9/2003RDRR38.6% $6,783,231$3,662,652$221,637 $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
10/2001-9/2002RDR39.1% $6,228,235$3,441,014$183,884 $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
10/2000-9/2001DRRDR39.6% $5,807,463$3,257,130-$9,523$
10/1999-9/2000DRR39.6% $5,674,178$3,266,654-$102,179 $$$$$$$$$$
10/1998-9/1999DRR39.6% $5,656,270$3,368,833-$9,035 $
10/1997-9/1998DRR39.6% $5,526,193$3,377,869$19,838$$
10/1996-9/1997DRR39.6% $5,413,146$3,358,031$46,997 $$$$$
10/1995-9/1996DRR39.6% $5,224,810$3,311,034$64,308 $$$$$$
10/1994-9/1995DDRDR39.6% $4,973,982$3,246,725$105,661 $$$$$$$$$$$
10/1993-9/1994DDD39.6% $4,692,749$3,141,064$100,755 $$$$$$$$$$
10/1992-9/1993RDDD31% $4,411,488$3,040,309$163,720 $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
10/1991-9/1992RDD31% $4,064,620$2,876,589$205,085 $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
10/1990-9/1991RDD28% $3,665,303$2,671,504$234,945 $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
10/1989-9/1990RDD28% $3,233,313$2,436,559$150,614 $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
10/1988-9/1989RDD28% $2,857,430$2,285,945$113,710 $$$$$$$$$$$
10/1987-9/1988RDD38.5% $2,602,337$2,172,235$128,516 $$$$$$$$$$$$$
10/1986-9/1987RRDD50% $2,350,276$2,043,719$115,132 $$$$$$$$$$$$
10/1985-9/1986RRD50% $2,125,302$1,928,587$245,204 $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
10/1984-9/1985RRD50% $1,823,103$1,683,382$185,986 $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
10/1983-9/1984RRD50% $1,572,266$1,497,396$129,760 $$$$$$$$$$$$$
10/1982-9/1983RRD50% $1,377,210$1,367,637$201,105 $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
10/1981-9/1982RRD70% $1,142,034$1,166,531$95,871 $$$$$$$$$$
10/1980-9/1981DRDRD70% $997,855$1,070,660-$9,937$
10/1979-9/1980DDD70% $907,701$1,080,596-$27,338$$$
10/1978-9/1979DDD70% $826,519$1,107,934-$52,282$$$$$
10/1977-9/1978DDD70% $771,544$1,160,217$22,041$$
7/1976-9/1977RDDD70% $698,840$1,138,176$36,691
7/1975-6/1976RDD70% $620,433$1,092,312$97,556$$$$$$$$$$
7/1974-6/1975RDD70% $533,189$994,756$25,246 $$$
7/1973-6/1974RDD70% $475,059$969,510-$67,010 $$$$$$$
7/1972-6/1973RDD70% $458,141$1,036,519$11,914 $
7/1971-6/1972RDD70% $427,260$1,024,605$43,990 $$$$
7/1970-6/1971RDD70% $398,129$980,615$24,639 $$
7/1969-6/1970RDD70% $370,918$955,976-$10,473 $
7/1912-6/1913R DDDno data$2,916$29,757$488
7/1911-6/1912RDDno data$2,868$29,269
no data
7/1910-6/1911RDDno data$2,765no datano data

Comments on Table 1:

The largest one-year deficit in history was in fiscal 2008-2009, in the trough of the recession and the peak of TARP and stimulus spending intended to end that recession. Deficits decreased rapidly for the next two years as TARP loans were repaid and temporary stimulus ended, and have alternately grown and shrunk since then.

Graph: Real Debt, 1911-present

The following graph shows the "real" (inflation-adjusted) national debt over the past century. This measures "how much consumer goods would it take to pay off the debt?" A “sustainable” budget is one in which it doesn't get harder to pay off the debt -- in other words, inflation-adjusted deficits and surpluses balance one another over a number of years. Sometimes (e.g. 1998-2001 and 1978-1981), the national debt grows in nominal dollars, but actually becomes easier to pay off because inflation has made those dollars "smaller". I've put the graph on a log scale, so (for example) a 10% growth in 1941 would look the same as a 10% growth in 1915. (The vertical scale is labelled in 1983 dollars; if we used a different base year, the graph would look exactly the same except for the numbers on the vertical scale.)

Note the spikes for World Wars I and II, the upward slope for the Great Depression, and the remarkable flat line from 1946 to 1981, during which time real national debt varied by less than 25%. (This differs from the flat lines in the previous graph: the nominal debt grew by a factor of four in these 35 years, but the inflation-adjusted debt held steady, so this flat-line represents a real phenomenon, not a temporary reporting dodge.) In other words, the Federal government had a “sustainable” debt for 35 years, as years of surplus almost exactly balanced years of deficit. But in the 35 years since 1981, the real debt has grown by a factor of seven, shrinking in only three of those years.

Analyses by President

I then grouped the data by Presidential administration. As mentioned above, I consider the fiscal year spanning a Presidential election and inauguration to be part of the outgoing administration. This is usually a fair assumption, because most government programs take a while to start, and last for multiple years. Fiscal 2008-2009 is perhaps an exception: both the outgoing and incoming Presidents signed expensive economic-stimulus programs designed to take effect immediately. Accordingly, in the following tables, I've given George W. Bush two rows in the table: one for his whole term, consistent with all other Presidents, and one counting only his first seven years, ending with the figures of September 2008, by which time a recession had started but the government measures to deal with it hadn't been enacted yet.

After deciding on those conventions, there were still several different reasonable ways to look at the data.

Table 2: The Top Ten Deficit Years

I have in my hand a copy of tonight's Top Ten list....

Again, all of these numbers are in inflation-adjusted (1983) dollars. I don't include "partial" years of 6 months or less.

Table 3: Average change in annual deficit

How much did the annual deficit shrink or grow?

I subtract the deficit in a President's first year from the deficit in the year after that President stepped down (or, in the case of the current President, from the most recent deficit figures I have). This change in deficit is then divided by the number of years it took to achieve it.

President political party change in deficit (millions) years in office avg. change in deficit avg. change in deficit ($ = 5billion)
B.H.Obama Democrat -$741,898 8 -$92,737 $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
G.W.Bush Republican $942,085 8 $117,761   $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
first 7 years
Republican $271,139 7 $38,734   $$$$$$$$
W.J.Clinton Democrat -$173,244 8 -$21,655 $$$$
G.H.W.Bush Republican $50,010 4 $12,503   $$$
R.Reagan Republican $123,646 8 $15,456   $$$
J.Carter Democrat -$46,628 4 -$11,657 $$
(Note change of
fiscal year)
Republican $103,701 3.25 $31,908   $$$$$$
R.M.Nixon Republican -$31,792 5 -$6,358 $
L.B.Johnson Democrat -$41,202 5 -$8,240 $$  
J.F.Kennedy Democrat $3,617 3 $1,206    
D.D.Eisenhower Republican -$12,680 8 -$1,585  
H.S.Truman Democrat -$272,072 8 -$34,009 $$$$$  
F.D.Roosevelt Democrat $252,936 12 $21,078   $$$$
H.Hoover Republican $38,120 4 $9,530   $$
C.Coolidge Republican $2,100 6 $351    
W.G.Harding Republican -$18,097 2 -$9,049 $$  
W.Wilson Democrat $11,573 8 $1,447    
W.H.Taft Republican insufficient data 4 insufficient data    

Comments on Table 3:

The first seven years of the G.W. Bush presidency increased the real deficit by slightly more than the twelve years of the FDR administration.

If one includes fiscal year 2008-2009 as part of the G.W. Bush administration (consistent with my treatment of all other administrations), that administration oversaw 3.7 times as much increase in Federal budget deficits as the FDR administration.

Obviously, many of the reasons a deficit grows or shrinks are beyond the President's control: Congress, the economy, the beginning or ending of a war, the beginning or ending of a recession, etc. For example, the beginning of World War II can be blamed for much of FDR's increase in the deficit, just as the end of World War II and the start of the post-war economic boom can be credited for much of Truman's matching decrease. I'm not sure what happened to Ford: he faced an economic recession, but so have many Presidents.

In my lifetime, every Democratic President has left office with a smaller deficit than he inherited, and every Republican President except Nixon has left office with a larger deficit than he inherited. This may be because Republican Presidents have placed high priority on cutting taxes, and placed lower priority on (or had less success at) cutting spending. Democratic Presidents have perhaps had equal success at cutting spending (I haven't researched those numbers), but have been less committed to cut taxes.

Table 4: Average annual deficit

How much debt was accumulated over a President's term(s)?

The previous approach, looking only at starting and ending deficits, doesn't distinguish between a President who oversees initially increasing deficits, then decreasing at the end (like Reagan) and a President who oversees initially decreasing deficits, then increasing at the end (like Carter), even though the former racks up more of a debt. So I computed the average annual deficit over a President's term(s).

President political party total accumulated debt (millions) years in office average annual deficit (millions) avg. deficit ($ = 10billion)
B.H.Obama Democrat $2,783,425 8 $347,928   $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
G.W.Bush Republican $2,257,471 8 $282,184   $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
first 7 years
(see comment above)
Republican $1,324,910 7 $189,273   $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
W.J.Clinton Democrat $216,821 8 $27,103   $$$
G.H.W.Bush Republican $754,365 4 $188,591   $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
R.Reagan Republican $1,215,285 8 $151,911   $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
J.Carter Democrat -$67,516 4 -$16,879 $$  
(Note change
in fiscal year)
Republican $168,666 3.25 $51,897   $$$$$
R.M.Nixon Republican $3,061 6 $612    
L.B.Johnson Democrat -$39,077 5 -$7,815 $  
J.F.Kennedy Democrat $35,824 3 $11,941   $
D.D.Eisenhower Republican -$23,101 8 -$2,888    
H.S.Truman Democrat -$436,381 8 -$54,548 $$$$$  
F.D.Roosevelt Democrat $1,251,713 12 $104,309   $$$$$$$$$$
H.Hoover Republican $78,458 4 $19,614   $$
C.Coolidge Republican -$32,457 6 -$5,409 $  
W.G.Harding Republican -$4,767 2 -$2,383    
W.Wilson Democrat $106,478 8 $13,310   $
W.H.Taft Republican insufficient data 4 insufficient data    

Comments on Table 4:

Again, Republican Presidents seem to rack up the big debts, at least in my lifetime (which started in 1964). Democratic Presidents (except Obama) tend to be "troughs" in the above graph, relative to their Republican successors and predecessors. Before 1964, the pattern is reversed: three of the four Democratic Presidents ran deficits over their time in office, while three of the four Republican Presidents ran surpluses.

The eight years of the Obama administration accrued 23% more total debt than the eight years of the G.W. Bush administration, which in turn was almost twice as much as eight years of Reagan or twelve years of FDR. The biggest accrued-debt-per-year figures are associated with B.H. Obama, G.W. Bush, G.H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, FDR, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton, and Herbert Hoover, in that order.

Table 5: Average deficit minus first-year deficit

How does the accumulated debt compare with what it would have been with no change?

Since many of the items in the budget are multi-year commitments with considerable inertia (most obviously, interest on the national debt!), I recomputed the previous numbers, subtracting the annual deficit in each President's first year. In other words, this table compares how much debt was actually accumulated with how much would have been accumulated if deficits had continued as they were when the President took office.

President political party average deficit
(from prev. table)
deficit in first year relative average deficit relative avg. deficit ($ = 10billion)
B.H.Obama Democrat $347,928 $932,561 -$584,633 $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$  
G.W.Bush Republican $282,184 -$9,524 $291,708   $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
first 7 years
Republican $189,273 -$9,524 $198,797   $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
W.J.Clinton Democrat $27,103 $163,720 -$136,617 $$$$$$$$$$$$$$  
G.H.W.Bush Republican $188,591 $113,710 $74,882   $$$$$$$
R.Reagan Republican $151,911 -$9,937 $161,847   $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
J.Carter Democrat -$16,879 $36,691 -$53,570 $$$$$  
G.Ford Republican $51,897 -67,010 $118,907   $$$$$$$$$$$$
R.M.Nixon Republican $612 -$35,218 $35,830   $$$$
L.B.Johnson Democrat -$7,815 $5,984 -$13,800 $  
J.F.Kennedy Democrat $11,941 $2,367 $9,574   $
D.D.Eisenhower Republican -$2,888 $15,047 -$17,935 $$  
H.S.Truman Democrat -$54,548 $287,119 -$341,666 $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$  
F.D.Roosevelt Democrat $104,309 $34,183 $70,126   $$$$$$$
H.Hoover Republican $9,614 -$3,936 $23,551   $$
C.Coolidge Republican -$5,409 -$6,036 $627    
W.G.Harding Republican -$2,383 $12,061 -$14,444 $  
W.Wilson Democrat $13,310 $488 $12,822   $
W.H.Taft Republican insufficient data insufficient data insufficient data    

Comments on Table 5:

Again, Truman is an outlier: he took office in the middle of World War II, which immediately followed the Great Depression. The Federal government was running an enormous annual deficit in his first year, so it would have been remarkable if it hadn't decreased during his term. Likewise, Obama took office in the middle of, by far, the biggest-deficit year in history, dealing with two wars and the most severe recession since the 1930's; it would have been remarkable if the deficit hadn't decreased during his term.

In the 107 years for which this Web page has adequate data, there have been eight Democratic and nine Republican Presidents. Five of the eight Democrats oversaw average deficits smaller than they inherited, while seven of the nine Republicans oversaw average deficits larger than they inherited.

Last modified: Sat Oct 14 08:38:45 EDT 2017

Stephen Bloch / sbloch@adelphi.edu / sbloch1964@gmail.com