Which President Is Most Responsible For The Current National Debt?

president term responsible for current national debt us deficit trillions

The current National Debt shows that our country owes upwards of $23.3 trillion. That's not millions with an "m" or billions with a "b", but trillions with a "t". 

Likewise, the budget deficit for the fiscal year 2020 shows that we added $3.1 trillion to that debt this year, a record for a single year. 

The Relationship Between Debt And GDP 

There is another way to look at the national debt, and that is as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product, or GDP.  The GDP is the total value of the products made and sold in the United States in a particular year. 

As a percentage of the GDP, the current national debt is at its highest rate in the post-war era, at 107% of GDP and it is closing in on the record 118.9% of GDP in 1946, which reflects the cost of mobilization in World War II. 

Put simply, the National Debt amount represents the accumulation of budget deficits and other money the federal government has borrowed over the years and not yet paid back. The number fluctuates from year-to-year. The Executive Branch of the US Government is charged with writing a budget every year, while Congress appropriates the money. 

Therefore, to find out who is most responsible for the size of our debt, one way is to look at which president's term has accumulated the most debt. 

For this article, we will look at the deficits that accumulated during each presidential term and compare them to the previous term. 

So, Who Ran Up The Largest Deficits? 

By far, using the above measure makes Franklin Roosevelt the overall champion of deficit spending because the borrowing during his term was more than 1,000% higher than his predecessor, Herbert Hoover. Of course, Hoover was in office when the stock market crashed and we became mired in the Great Depression, and most of FDR's borrowing came as we ramped up to enter the Second World War. 

In second place is Woodrow Wilson, whose deficits increased by 727% from his predecessor, due primarily to the expense of fighting the First World War. However, it should be pointed out that the rest of the top ten deficit-running presidents have come along during the post-war era, and especially in the last 40 years. 

Keep in mind; the total national debt in 1980—the total amount of debt accumulated since the Constitution was ratified—was just about $900 billion. That's less than $1 trillion in total debt from 1787 to 1980. Furthermore, as a percentage of GDP, the total debt dropped from the record 118.9% in 1946, to 32% in 1979. 

That doesn't mean the debt dropped in size. It means the post-war government was sufficiently alarmed by the size of the debt, and diligently attempted to spend and borrow less, while also making sure revenues from taxes continued to be sustainable. 

Political Hypocrisy, Writ Large 

Perhaps ironically, one of the main campaign planks of former California Governor and Republican Ronald Reagan dealt with our increasing deficit spending under President Carter. Of course, he also promised to reduce taxes to unheard-of levels for the post-war government. 

During his campaign, Reagan also announced a plan based on "supply-side" economics, which he called "trickle-down economics". It was based on the concept that, if the federal government reduced the taxes of rich people and rich corporations, there would be an overall increase in revenues that would be far more than the loss of tax revenue from the tax cuts. 

How Did The Debt Get To $23 Trillion? 

us national debt growth american deficit obama vs trump spending

Of course, none of that happened. By the end of Reagan's two terms, his huge tax cuts and his reliance on trickle-down economics led to his ranking of third on the list of deficit-laden presidents, with a 186% increase in deficit spending over Carter. By 1988, the overall national debt had more than tripled, from $900 million to $2.86 trillion. 

From there, the restraints seem to have been removed, and budget deficits became the norm. George H. W. Bush (who is fifth on the list) saw a 54% increase in deficit spending over Reagan's, which means the debt topped $3 trillion on his watch. 

After a small respite, in which Bill Clinton oversaw a flattening of the curve, and even ran the first surplus in 30 years, Bush's son, George W. Bush, resumed the massive deficit trend, cutting taxes to the bone, even as he pushed the United States into two costly wars and stood and watched as the economy saw the worst downturn since the Great Depression. 

Barack Obama is in fourth place, increasing overall deficit spending by 74% over George W. Bush, primarily because he inherited both costly wars and had to spend money to head off a depression caused by the financial meltdown. Learn even more facts on the National Debt at: https://www.factcheck.org/2012/02/dueling-debt-deceptions/ 

Deficits seem to have become ingrained in the federal government these days. In four years, President Trump cut taxes to the bone, but primarily for rich corporations, and then he allowed a pandemic to spread, which caused a major economic downturn. As a result, we are looking at permanent deficits of greater than $1 trillion per year for the foreseeable future.

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