​​What’s the National Debt by President?

The country’s debt has grown exponentially in the past few decades.

Written by Ben Luthi / September 26, 2022

Quick Bites

  • 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.[1] Here’s how the U.S. debt by president breaks down.

Inside this article

  1. National debt by president
  2. What makes up the national debt?
  3. The national debt and the GDP

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.[2]

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.[3] 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[4-7]:

PresidentYears served National debt contribution Percentage increase
Joe Biden2021 - present $1.84 trillion 6.33%
Donald Trump2017 - 2021 $8.2 trillion 40.43%
Barack Obama 2009 - 2017$8.34 trillion 69.98%
George W. Bush2001 - 2009 $6.1 trillion105.08%
Bill Clinton 1993 - 2001 $1.4 trillion 31.64%
George H.W. Bush 1989 - 1993$1.55 trillion54.39%
Ronald Reagan1981 - 1989 $1.86 trillion186.36%
Jimmy Carter 1977 - 1981$299 billion42.79%
Gerald Ford1974 - 1977$223.8 billion47.11%
Richard Nixon 1969 - 1974$121.3 billion 34.3%
Lyndon B. Johnson1963 - 1969 $42 billion 13.48%
John F. Kennedy1961 - 1963 $22.7 billion 7.87%
Dwight D. Eisenhower 1953 - 1961$22.9 billion 8.61%
Harry S. Truman 1945 - 1953$7.4 billion2.86%
Franklin D. Roosevelt1933 - 1945$236.1 billion 1,047.73%
Herbert Hoover1929 - 1933 $5.6 billion 33.12%
Calvin Coolidge1923 - 1929 -$5.42 billion -24.24%
Warren G. Harding1921 - 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 million23.52%

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.[8]

Woodrow Wilson also added a large percentage increase to the national debt to finance World War I.[9]

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.[10]

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.[11] The Biden Administration's legislation and executive orders in 2022—namely the Inflation Reduction Act and mass student loan forgiveness—could also impact the national debt in unforeseen ways.

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.[12]

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.

What the National Debt Means for You

What the National Debt Means for You

The national debt is easier to understand than you think, and it impacts us all in many different ways.

Find out more

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.[13]

“The national debt is typically scaled relative to GDP, because this allows investors to determine the total amount of the government’s 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.”[13]

Rhea Thomas headshot

Meet the Expert

Besides her work at Wilmington Trust, Thomas was a vice president at Lehman Brothers. She earned her bachelor's degree in economics and international studies at Yale University.

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]

What’s the U.S. Debt-to-GDP Ratio and Why Does It Matter?

What’s the U.S. Debt-to-GDP Ratio and Why Does It Matter?

Here’s what the U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio means and why it’s so often used as an economic barometer.

Find out more

According to a study conducted by the World Bank, a ratio above 77% for a prolonged period could stymie economic growth.[16]

In all of this, it’s important to note that the federal government pays its debts with tax revenue, not GDP.[17] Politicians continue to be at odds over how to generate revenues and how to spend those revenues.[10]

“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.

Article Sources
  1. “Q&A: Gross Debt Versus Debt Held by the Public,” Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, https://www.crfb.org/papers/qa-gross-debt-versus-debt-held-public.
  2. “Federal Deficit Trends Over Time,” USASpending.gov, https://datalab.usaspending.gov/americas-finance-guide/deficit/trends.
  3. “Submission of the President’s Budget in Transition Years,” Congressional Research Service, https://sgp.fas.org/crs/misc/RS20752.pdf.
  4. “Historical Debt Outstanding,” TreasuryDirect, https://www.treasurydirect.gov/govt/reports/pd/histdebt/histdebt.htm.
  5. “Historical Debt Outstanding — Annual 1900 - 1949,” TreasuryDirect, https://www.treasurydirect.gov/govt/reports/pd/histdebt/histdebt_histo3.htm.
  6. “Historical Debt Outstanding — Annual 1950 - 1999,” TreasuryDirect, https://www.treasurydirect.gov/govt/reports/pd/histdebt/histdebt_histo4.htm.
  7. “Historical Debt Outstanding — Annual 2000 - 2021,” TreasuryDirect, https://www.treasurydirect.gov/govt/reports/pd/histdebt/histdebt_histo5.htm.
  8. “The New Deal (1933-1936) to World War II (1939-1945),” TreasuryDirect Kids, https://www.treasurydirect.gov/kids/history/history_ww2.htm.
  9. “Liberty Bonds,” Federal Reserve History, https://www.federalreservehistory.org/essays/liberty-bonds.
  10. “The National Debt Dilemma,” Council on Foreign Relations, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/national-debt-dilemma.
  11. “President Biden’s Economic Strategy and Fiscal Responsibility Decreasing Deficit by More Than $1.3 Trillion—Largest One-Year Decline in U.S. History,” The White House, https://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/briefing-room/2022/03/28/president-bidens-economic-strategy-and-fiscal-responsibility-decreasing-deficit-by-more-than-1-3-trillion-largest-one-year-decline-in-u-s-history.
  12. “Q&A: Gross Debt Versus Debt Held by the Public,” Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, https://www.crfb.org/papers/qa-gross-debt-versus-debt-held-public.
  13. “The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2020 to 2030,” Congressional Budget Office, https://www.cbo.gov/publication/56073.
  14. “Federal Debt: Total Public Debt as Percent of Gross Domestic Product,” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/GFDEGDQ188S.
  15. “Treatment and Prevention: Ending the Great Recession and Ensuring that It Doesn’t Happen Again,” Obama White House, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/administration/eop/cea/speeches-testimony/treatment_and_prevention.
  16. “Finding the Tipping Point — When Sovereign Debt Turns Bad,” World Bank Group, https://elibrary.worldbank.org/doi/abs/10.1596/1813-9450-5391.
  17. “Policy Basics: Where Do Our Federal Tax Dollars Go?” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, https://www.cbpp.org/research/federal-budget/where-do-our-federal-tax-dollars-go.

About the Author

Ben Luthi

Ben Luthi

Ben has been writing about money since 2013. He's been on staff at NerdWallet as a credit card writer and for Student Loan Hero, where he covered student loans and other personal finance topics. Ben's work has appeared in U.S. News, The New York Times, Experian, FICO, Credit Karma, Bankrate and more

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