- The national debt, which has surpassed $30 trillion, shows how much the federal government owes.
- All but two presidents since 1900 have contributed to the national debt, some more than others.
- More significant contributions have been a result of government spending to finance wars and economic recovery.
- While a country's national debt and gross domestic product are often correlated, too much debt compared to a country's GDP can negatively impact economic growth.
The federal government has countless programs to provide for its citizen's various needs. But the ever-rising national debt is a constant reminder of the need for more moderated spending.
Many people like to see the national debt by president to get an idea of how certain policies impact our government's spending. They might use it as a political scorecard to gauge how well an administration is doing.
By the end of January 2022, the nation's debt burden surpassed $30 trillion for the first time. Here's how the U.S. debt by president breaks down.
National debt by president
The U.S. Treasury Department provides a detailed account of how much debt the country has piled up each year since 1900.
From 1790 through 1900, the nation's presidents accumulated $2.1 billion in national debt. Since then, presidents have seen both deficits and surpluses, but the deficits have grossly outpaced the surpluses, and the federal government hasn't made more money than it spent in a year since 2001.
Keep in mind that presidents generally don't have any control over the budget during their first year in office because it's already set in stone by the previous president. We adjusted the figures to account for this fact.
Here's how each president has contributed to that debt since the turn of the 20th century:[4, 5, 6, 7]
|President||Years Served||National Debt Contribution||Percentage Increase|
|Joe Biden||2021 - present||$1.84 trillion||6.33%|
|Donald Trump||2017 - 2021||$8.2 trillion||40.43%|
|Barack Obama||2009 - 2017||$8.34 trillion||69.98%|
|George W. Bush||2001 - 2009||$6.1 trillion||105.08%|
|Bill Clinton||1993 - 2001||$1.4 trillion||31.64%|
|George H.W. Bush||1989 - 1993||$1.55 trillion||54.39%|
|Ronald Reagan||1981 - 1989||$1.86 trillion||186.36%|
|Jimmy Carter||1977 - 1981||$299 billion||42.79%|
|Gerald Ford||1974 - 1977||$223.8 billion||47.11%|
|Richard Nixon||1969 - 1974||$121.3 billion||34.3%|
|Lyndon B. Johnson||1963 - 1969||$42 billion||13.48%|
|John F. Kennedy||1961 - 1963||$22.7 billion||7.87%|
|Dwight D. Eisenhower||1953 - 1961||$22.9 billion||8.61%|
|Harry S. Truman||1945 - 1953||$7.4 billion||2.86%|
|Franklin D. Roosevelt||1933 - 1945||$236.1 billion||1,047.73%|
|Herbert Hoover||1929 - 1933||$5.6 billion||33.12%|
|Calvin Coolidge||1923 - 1929||-$5.42 billion||-24.24%|
|Warren G. Harding||1921 - 1923||-$1.63 billion||-6.79%|
|Woodrow Wilson||1913 - 1921||$21 billion||722.21%|
|William H. Taft||1909 - 1913||$276.7 million||10.48%|
|Theodore Roosevelt||1901 - 1909||$502.6 million||23.52%|
As you can see, every single president since 1900 other than Calvin Coolidge and Warren G. Harding has increased the national debt.
Franklin D. Roosevelt added the most debt in terms of percentage increase, which was brought on by The New Deal. That program helped the country dig itself out of the Great Depression, and World War II.
Woodrow Wilson also added a large percentage increase to the national debt to finance World War I.
President George W. Bush was the first president to add a multi-trillion dollar amount to the debt to finance the war on terror, and Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump followed suit, the former primarily to combat the Great Recession and the latter mostly to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
It's unclear yet how much President Joe Biden will add to the national debt, but the Congressional Budget Office projects that the country will add $1.3 trillion in deficit spending each year through 2030, totaling $13 trillion over that time.
What makes up the national debt?
The national debt is comprised of both public debt and intragovernmental debt. Public debt includes Treasury bills, notes and bonds, which are owned by U.S.-based investors, the Federal Reserve and foreign governments.
Intragovernmental debt is made up of Government Account Series securities that are owned by federal agencies, such as military retirement funds, public employee retirement funds and the Social Security Trust Fund.
Each year in which the government spends more than it earns in tax revenues, it runs a deficit for that year, which adds to the national debt total.
How does the national debt correlate to the GDP?
Government spending is often designed to boost the economy, which means that the national debt and the country's gross domestic product—the total market value of all goods and services produced within the country's borders—are correlated.
"The national debt is typically scaled relative to GDP, because this allows investors to determine the total amount of governments obligations relative to its ability to repay these obligations," says Rhea Thomas, an economist at Wilmington Trust.
"In addition, it allows for consistent comparison over time and across countries. Countries with high debt to GDP ratios tend to be associated with lower long term growth."
For the fourth quarter of 2021, the U.S. had a debt-to-GDP ratio of 123.39%, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. That's almost double what it was in the fourth quarter of 2007, shortly before the Obama administration increased spending to deal with the Great Recession. [14, 15]
According to a study conducted by the World Bank, a ratio above 77% for a prolonged period could stymie economic growth.
In all of this, it's important to note that the federal government pays its debts with tax revenue, not GDP. Politicians continue to be at odds over how to generate revenues and how to spend those revenues.
"Paying back the debt will require higher taxes or reduced government spending, both of which are difficult to do politically and result in slower growth," says Thomas. "Governments may also choose to print money to pay for debt, but this raises the risk of runaway inflation and higher interest rates."
Thomas also adds that as debt levels grow, investors may demand higher interest rates out of concern over the government's ability to pay its debts. Higher interest rates would, in turn, take away from private investments, and it would also require more government spending to make larger interest payments, dampening productivity and long-term growth.
The national debt can be a politically polarizing issue, but it's important to keep the context in mind for each president. As spending continues to rise without a correlated increase in revenues, the national debt will continue to increase, likely putting more financial strain on future generations.