US Debt By President

The National Debt, set to reach $27.8 trillion by the end of 2020, is a number that for most of us is too high to even conceive of. Through time, National Debt has continued to climb, from President to President, as a result of decision making and events that have fallen both within and outside of the White House's control.

This article will dive into how much each President has contributed to National Debt, the types of decisions they make that impact debt levels the most and the events that have shaped America’s economic reality throughout history.

Key Stats:

  • Until the COVID-19 Pandemic Lockdown (03/16/20), Donald Trump had increased debts by 16.08%. That’s considerably less than Barack Obama (69.98%) and George W. Bush (105.08%)
  • Since ‘lockdown’ began, Trump has increased US national debt by a further 15.11% in just 7 months, an increase of $3.6 trillion.
  • Daily national debt during Trump’s Presidency has increased from $2.861 billion pre-lockdown (01/02/2017 - 03/16/20) per day to $16.366 billion since. A 472% increase in the rate of daily debt.
  • Abraham Lincoln’s years in the Oval Office saw the largest percentage increase in National Debt under any President, increasing 2859% overall
  • However, Martin Van Buren is the President who spent the most consistently with average yearly debt increasing 375.32% compared to Lincoln’s 148.36%
  • Woodrow Wilson, who was President during World War 1, oversaw an increase of 722.21% (averaging 35% increase per year in office)
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt, in office between 1933 - 1945, increased National Debt by 1047.73% (24% increase per year on average)
  • Of the 45 Presidents, only 14 of them have overseen a decrease in debt. Calvin Coolidge was the last President to do so, leaving office in 1929, 15 Presidencies ago
  • Andrew Jackson is the President who decreased National Debt the most, nearly eradicating it completely between 1829 - 1837 by reducing the total by -99.42%

Contents:

The Federal Deficit

The federal deficit differs from the national debt in that the deficit is the difference between revenue and spending in a single year, whereas the national debt is measured since the country’s inception and over the country’s lifetime. [1] The National Debt Explained https://www.investopedia.com/updates/usa-national-debt/

Deficits and debt are definitely related. The best way to measure a president's debt is to add up his budget deficits. A president's budget reveals a particular administration's spending priorities. The deficit by president reveals how much deficit was in each year's budget, which can increase the debt.

The National Debt

The national debt of the United States is the total unpaid borrowed funds carried by the federal government. [4] National Debt of the United States https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_debt_of_the_United_States Government debt increases as a result of government spending, and decreases from tax and other revenues. Both of these fluctuate during the course of a fiscal year.

A major difference between the federal deficit and the national debt is that a president can use some creative means to feign some short-term fiscal responsibility. For example, a president can borrow from the Social Security Trust Fund, which has run a surplus since 1987. More working people contributed via payroll taxes than retired people withdrew in benefits. The Fund invests its surplus in U.S. Treasury notes. [5] How is the Social Security Trust Fund Invested? https://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/110614/how-social-security-trust-fund-invested.asp

The president can reduce the deficit by spending these funds instead of issuing additional Treasury securities. While on paper, this nominally reduces the deficit, it doesn’t reduce the national debt at all.

History of the U.S. Debt by President

Total Debt Change Per President [6] President Outlay Data hhttps://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/historical-tables/

PRESIDENT YEAR Debt At Start ($) Debt When Leaving Office ($) Debt Change Percentage Total Debt Change ($)
PRESIDENTDonald J. Trump YEAR2017–present Debt At Start ($)$20,244,900,016,053.50 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$27,052,190,118,519.27 Debt Change Percentage33.62% Total Debt Change ($)$6,807,290,102,465.77
PRESIDENTBarack Obama YEAR2009–2017 Debt At Start ($)$11,909,829,003,511.70 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$20,244,900,016,053.50 Debt Change Percentage69.98% Total Debt Change ($)$8,335,071,012,541.80
PRESIDENTGeorge W. Bush YEAR2001–2009 Debt At Start ($)$5,807,463,412,200.06 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$11,909,829,003,511.70 Debt Change Percentage105.08% Total Debt Change ($)$6,102,365,591,311.64
PRESIDENTWilliam J. Clinton YEAR1993–2001 Debt At Start ($)$4,411,488,883,139.38 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$5,807,463,412,200.06 Debt Change Percentage31.64% Total Debt Change ($)$1,395,974,529,060.68
PRESIDENTGeorge H. W. Bush YEAR1989–1993 Debt At Start ($)$2,857,430,960,187.32 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$4,411,488,883,139.38 Debt Change Percentage54.39% Total Debt Change ($)$1,554,057,922,952.06
PRESIDENTRonald Reagan YEAR1981–1989 Debt At Start ($)$997,855,000,000.00 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$2,857,430,960,187.32 Debt Change Percentage186.36% Total Debt Change ($)$1,859,575,960,187.32
PRESIDENTJimmy Carter YEAR1977–1981 Debt At Start ($)$698,840,000,000.00 Debt When Leaving Office ($)997,855,000,000.00 Debt Change Percentage42.79% Total Debt Change ($)$299,015,000,000.00
PRESIDENTGerald Ford YEAR1974–1977 Debt At Start ($)$475,059,815,731.55 Debt When Leaving Office ($)698,840,000,000.00 Debt Change Percentage47.11% Total Debt Change ($)$223,780,184,268.45
PRESIDENTRichard Nixon YEAR1969–1974 Debt At Start ($)$353,720,253,841.41 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$475,059,815,731.55 Debt Change Percentage34.30% Total Debt Change ($)$121,339,561,890.14
PRESIDENTLyndon Johnson YEAR1963–1969 Debt At Start ($)$305,859,632,996.41 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$353,720,253,841.41 Debt Change Percentage15.65% Total Debt Change ($)$47,860,620,845.00
PRESIDENTJohn F. Kennedy YEAR1961–1963 Debt At Start ($)$288,970,938,610.05 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$305,859,632,996.41 Debt Change Percentage5.84% Total Debt Change ($)$16,888,694,386.36
PRESIDENTDwight Eisenhower YEAR1953–1961 Debt At Start ($)$266,071,061,638.57 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$288,970,938,610.05 Debt Change Percentage8.61% Total Debt Change ($)$22,899,876,971.48
PRESIDENTHarry S. Truman YEAR1945–1953 Debt At Start ($)$258,682,187,409.93 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$266,071,061,638.57 Debt Change Percentage2.86% Total Debt Change ($)$7,388,874,228.64
PRESIDENTFranklin D. Roosevelt YEAR1933–1945 Debt At Start ($)$22,538,672,560.15 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$258,682,187,409.93 Debt Change Percentage1047.73% Total Debt Change ($)$236,143,514,849.78
PRESIDENTHerbert Hoover YEAR1929–1933 Debt At Start ($)$16,931,088,484.10 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$22,538,672,560.15 Debt Change Percentage33.12% Total Debt Change ($)$5,607,584,076.05
PRESIDENTCalvin Coolidge YEAR1923–1929 Debt At Start ($)$22,349,707,365.36 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$16,931,088,484.10 Debt Change Percentage-24.24% Total Debt Change ($)-$5,418,618,881.26
PRESIDENTWarren Harding YEAR1921–1923 Debt At Start ($)$23,977,450,552.54 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$22,349,707,365.36 Debt Change Percentage-6.79% Total Debt Change ($)-$1,627,743,187.18
PRESIDENTWoodrow Wilson YEAR1913–1921 Debt At Start ($)$2,916,204,913.66 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$23,977,450,552.54 Debt Change Percentage722.21% Total Debt Change ($)$21,061,245,638.88
PRESIDENTWilliam H. Taft YEAR1909–1913 Debt At Start ($)$2,639,546,241.04 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$2,916,204,913.66 Debt Change Percentage10.48% Total Debt Change ($)$276,658,672.62
PRESIDENTTheodore Roosevelt YEAR1901–1909 Debt At Start ($)$2,143,326,933.89 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$2,639,546,241.04 Debt Change Percentage23.15% Total Debt Change ($)$496,219,307.15
PRESIDENTWilliam McKinley YEAR1897–1901 Debt At Start ($)$1,817,672,665.90 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$2,143,326,933.89 Debt Change Percentage17.92% Total Debt Change ($)$325,654,267.99
PRESIDENTGrover Cleveland YEAR1893–1897 Debt At Start ($)$1,545,985,686.13 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$1,817,672,665.90 Debt Change Percentage17.57% Total Debt Change ($)$271,686,979.77
PRESIDENTBenjamin Harrison YEAR1889–1893 Debt At Start ($)$1,619,052,922.23 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$1,545,985,686.13 Debt Change Percentage-4.51% Total Debt Change ($)-$73,067,236.10
PRESIDENTGrover Cleveland YEAR1885–1889 Debt At Start ($)$1,863,964,873.14 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$1,619,052,922.23 Debt Change Percentage-13.14% Total Debt Change ($)-$244,911,950.91
PRESIDENTChester Arthur YEAR1881–1885 Debt At Start ($)$2,069,013,569.58 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$1,863,964,873.14 Debt Change Percentage-9.91% Total Debt Change ($)-$205,048,696.44
PRESIDENTJames Garfield YEAR1881 Debt At Start ($)$2,069,013,569.58 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$2,069,013,569.58 Debt Change Percentagen/a Total Debt Change ($)n/a
PRESIDENTRutherford B. Hayes YEAR1877–1881 Debt At Start ($)$2,205,301,392.10 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$2,069,013,569.58 Debt Change Percentage-6.18% Total Debt Change ($)-$136,287,822.52
PRESIDENTUlysses S. Grant YEAR1869–1877 Debt At Start ($)$2,588,452,213.94 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$2,205,301,392.10 Debt Change Percentage-14.80% Total Debt Change ($)-$383,150,821.84
PRESIDENTAndrew Johnson YEAR1865–1869 Debt At Start ($)$2,680,647,869.74 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$2,588,452,213.94 Debt Change Percentage-3.44% Total Debt Change ($)-$92,195,655.80
PRESIDENTAbraham Lincoln YEAR1861–1865 Debt At Start ($)$90,580,873.72 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$2,680,647,869.74 Debt Change Percentage2859.40% Total Debt Change ($)$2,590,066,996.02
PRESIDENTJames Buchanan YEAR1857–1861 Debt At Start ($)$28,699,831.85 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$90,580,873.72 Debt Change Percentage215.61% Total Debt Change ($)$61,881,041.87
PRESIDENTFranklin Pierce YEAR1853–1857 Debt At Start ($)$59,803,117.70 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$28,699,831.85 Debt Change Percentage-52.01% Total Debt Change ($)-$31,103,285.85
PRESIDENTMillard Fillmore YEAR1850–1853 Debt At Start ($)$63,452,773.55 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$59,803,117.70 Debt Change Percentage-5.75% Total Debt Change ($)-$3,649,655.85
PRESIDENTZachary Taylor YEAR1849–1850 Debt At Start ($)$63,061,858.69 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$63,452,773.55 Debt Change Percentage0.62% Total Debt Change ($)$390,914.86
PRESIDENTJames Polk YEAR1845–1849 Debt At Start ($)$15,925,303.01 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$63,061,858.69 Debt Change Percentage295.99% Total Debt Change ($)$47,136,555.68
PRESIDENTJohn Tyler YEAR1841–1845 Debt At Start ($)$5,250,875.54 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$15,925,303.01 Debt Change Percentage203.29% Total Debt Change ($)$10,674,427.47
PRESIDENTWilliam Henry Harrison YEAR1841 Debt At Start ($)$5,250,875.54 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$5,250,875.54 Debt Change Percentagen/a Total Debt Change ($)n/a
PRESIDENTMartin Van Buren YEAR1837–1841 Debt At Start ($)$336,957.83 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$5,250,875.54 Debt Change Percentage1458.32% Total Debt Change ($)$4,913,917.71
PRESIDENTAndrew Jackson YEAR1829–1837 Debt At Start ($)$58,421,413.67 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$336,957.83 Debt Change Percentage-99.42% Total Debt Change ($)-$58,084,455.84
PRESIDENTJohn Quincy Adams YEAR1825–1829 Debt At Start ($)$83,788,432.71 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$58,421,413.67 Debt Change Percentage-30.28% Total Debt Change ($)-$25,367,019.04
PRESIDENTJames Monroe YEAR1817–1825 Debt At Start ($)$123,491,965.16 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$83,788,432.71 Debt Change Percentage-32.15% Total Debt Change ($)-$39,703,532.45
PRESIDENTJames Madison YEAR1809–1817 Debt At Start ($)$57,023,192.09 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$123,491,965.16 Debt Change Percentage116.56% Total Debt Change ($)$66,468,773.07
PRESIDENTThomas Jefferson YEAR1801–1809 Debt At Start ($)$83,038,050.80 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$57,023,192.09 Debt Change Percentage-31.33% Total Debt Change ($)-$26,014,858.71
PRESIDENTJohn Adams YEAR1797–1801 Debt At Start ($)$82,064,479.33 Debt When Leaving Office ($)$83,038,050.80 Debt Change Percentage1.19% Total Debt Change ($)$973,571.47
PRESIDENTGeorge Washington YEAR1789–1797 Debt At Start ($)$71,060,508.50 Debt When Leaving Office ($)82,064,479.33 Debt Change Percentage15.49% Total Debt Change ($)$11,003,970.83

Present* = Until 06/10/2020

Average Percentage Debt Change Per Year In Office [6] President Outlay Data https://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/historical-tables/ [7] Inflation Data https://www.officialdata.org/

PRESIDENT YEAR Average Debt % Change Average Inflation
Donald J. Trump 2017–present 4.48% 1.67%
Barack Obama 2009–2017 8.24% 1.46%
George W. Bush 2001–2009 8.67% 2.48%
William J. Clinton 1993–2001 4.07% 2.62%
George H. W. Bush 1989–1993 11.15% 4.09%
Ronald Reagan 1981–1989 13.64% 4.67%
Jimmy Carter 1977–1981 9.98% 9.85%
Gerald Ford 1974–1977 11.23% 8.11%
Richard Nixon 1969–1974 5.37% 6.01%
Lyndon Johnson 1963–1969 2.48% 2.83%
John F. Kennedy 1961–1963 2.23% 1.11%
Dwight Eisenhower 1953–1961 1.23% 1.36%
Harry S. Truman 1945–1953 3.53% 4.84%
Franklin D. Roosevelt 1933–1945 23.90% 2.19%
Herbert Hoover 1929–1933 5.44% -5.26%
Calvin Coolidge 1923–1929 -4.26% 0.27%
Warren Harding 1921–1923 -4.84% -4.95%
Woodrow Wilson 1913–1921 34.78% 7.45%
William H. Taft 1909–1913 2.12% 1.50%
Theodore Roosevelt 1901–1909 2.40% 0.91%
William McKinley 1897–1901 4.00% 0.24%
Grover Cleveland 1893–1897 2.78% -1.81%
Benjamin Harrison 1889–1893 -1.76% -1.07%
Grover Cleveland 1885–1889 -2.36% -1.24%
Chester Arthur 1881–1885 -2.50% -0.99%
James Garfield 1881 n/a n/a
Rutherford B. Hayes 1877–1881 -0.92% -0.93%
Ulysses S. Grant 1869–1877 -1.84% -3.28%
Andrew Johnson 1865–1869 8.86% -2.77%
Abraham Lincoln 1861–1865 148.36% 14.79%
James Buchanan 1857–1861 25.41% 0.77%
Franklin Pierce 1853–1857 -15.03% 2.54%
Millard Fillmore 1850–1853 -1.12% 0.00%
Zachary Taylor 1849–1850 0.62% 1.30%
James Polk 1845–1849 34.08% 0.59%
John Tyler 1841–1845 48.74% -3.21%
William Henry Harrison 1841 n/a n/a
Martin Van Buren 1837–1841 375.32% -0.13%
Andrew Jackson 1829–1837 57.71% -0.75%
John Quincy Adams 1825–1829 -8.28% -1.91%
James Monroe 1817–1825 -4.39% -4.92%
James Madison 1809–1817 9.07% 2.63%
Thomas Jefferson 1801–1809 -3.87% 0.51%
John Adams 1797–1801 -0.12% 0.05%
George Washington 1789–1797 2.12% 6.06%

The Types of Presidential Decisions That Impact National Debt

Presidents can have a tremendous impact on the national debt. They can also have an impact on the debt in another president’s term. When President Trump took office in January of 2017, for the first nine months of his presidency, he operated under President Obama’s budget which didn’t end until September, 2017. So for most of a new president’s first year in office, he isn’t accountable for the spending that takes place. As strange as this may seem, it’s actually by design to allow time for the new president to put a budget together when in office.

Tax Cuts

One way presidents can have an effect on the debt is through tax cuts. Tax cuts can be a politically popular move because a president gets to tell the public they will have either more money in their paychecks or will get larger refunds when filing their tax returns. What Americans may not realize is that a president may not have a plan to offset the shortfall in revenue, which results in the government borrowing money and increasing the debt.

Wars

A far less politically popular way presidents can affect the debt is by waging war. Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones famously said, “Wars swallow gold like a pit in the earth.” For the United States, the War in Afghanistan has been going on for 18+ years and accounts for some very significant increases in the national debt.

In terms of dollar amount, the two most recent wars, the War in Iraq and the War in Afghanistan, cost $805 billion and $783 billion respectively. If you include interest, both wars account for about $2 trillion being added to the national debt.

Recessions

A third instance where the debt can increase is during a recession. Interestingly, an increase in the debt when not in a recession can increase the likelihood of a recession. The Congressional Budget Office found that a 1 percent increase in the debt raises interest rates 2-3 points. If interest rates continue to rise, it can hamper economic growth, and three quarters of negative economic growth is the very definition of a recession. A president must carefully consider the effects of economic policy during times of negative economic growth.

There are times when a president feels he has little choice but to increase the debt. The effects of the Great Recession of 2008 certainly fit that category. The recession spanned two presidencies, one Republican and one Democratic. Each president took steps to stave off the recession’s effects that had a tremendous effect on the debt.

George W. Bush’s bank bailout was initiated to keep financial institutions from collapsing, resulting in deficits exceeding $1 trillion. Barack Obama’s stimulus package combined a $212 billion tax cut, a $296 billion expansion of Medicaid and unemployment benefits, and $279 billion in infrastructure spending to assist Americans still reeling from the recession’s effects on their financial well-being.

Working with Congress

One thing about a president’s economic policy that often isn’t considered is that the president does not operate in a vacuum. The chief executive submits the budget, but fiscal policies are ultimately set by Congress through the budget process. [2] How much each president has contributed to the National Debt https://www.marketwatch.com/story/how-much-each-us-president-has-contributed-to-the-national-debt-2018-10-29 This can lead to conflict between a president and Congress. One of the specific points of conflict is the debt ceiling.

The debt ceiling is part of a law (Title 31 of the United States Code, section 3101) that sets a legislative limit on the amount of national debt that can be incurred by the U.S. Treasury. This limits how much money the federal government may borrow. The debt ceiling does not limit government deficits. It can only stop the Treasury from paying for expenditures and other financial obligations after the limit has been reached. This is where the conflict comes in.

The process of setting the debt ceiling is separate from the United States budget process. The raising of the debt ceiling is one of those unique beasts that neither directly increases nor decreases the budget deficit. But, it can have a big effect on the debt because it directly involves the Treasury borrowing money.

When the debt ceiling is reached, the President and Congress must reach an agreement on raising it. If an agreement is reached, the government moves forward with paying its obligations. If an agreement is not reached by the deadline, a government shut-down occurs until an agreement is reached.

Let’s take a look at the presidents whose decisions have the greatest effect, either in dollars or percentage, on the national debt.

Presidents Who Had The Greatest Impact on National Debt

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln is the President that added the biggest percentage increase to the U.S. National Debt. The level of debt increased from $90.6 million in 1857 to $2.68 billion in 1861, an increase of 2859.4%.

These debts were created in order to fund the American Civil War and laid the early seeds for how the future of the banking system would operate alongside federal taxes, which were introduced to help fund the war efforts.

Martin Van Buren

Coming into office following Andrew Jackson, who had overseen a near eradication of national debt, Martin Van Buren’s first year in the Oval office (1837) saw debt levels soar 798% - the second largest YoY increase in history. This is only preceded by his second year in office, where debts increased 882%.

A decrease of 66% in Van Buren’s 4th year is the main reason his total debt levels were lower than that of Abraham Lincoln’s. This kept the total increase down to a still eye-watering 1458% increase, from $337k in 1837 to $5.25m in 1841.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

President Roosevelt presided over the largest percentage increase in the national debt in modern history, but the third largest increase in Presidential history. Although he only added $236 billion, this was a 1,048 percent increase from the $23 billion debt level left by Herbert Hoover.

The Great Depression levied a devastating hit to revenues, the New Deal cost billions of dollars, but what followed those two events was the second World War. That alone accounted for $209 billion of the $236 billion added to the debt between 1942 and 1945.

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson was the fourth largest contributor to the debt in terms of percentage. His $21 billion over the $2.9 billion debt of his predecessor, which may seem tiny compared to FDR, amounts to a 727 percent increase from his predecessor, William Howard Taft. Like FDR, Wilson had a World War to pay for.

However, a lesser-known milestone of the Wilson presidency, the Second Liberty Bond Act, gave Congress the right to adopt the national debt ceiling. This would be something that Americans would become familiar with each successive president’s budget negotiations with Congress.

Ronald Reagan

President Reagan holds a solid fifth place with his 186 percent increase in the national debt. This is a result of the Reagan administration’s attempts to stabilize the economy through the 1981 - 82 recession (also known as Reaganomics), which added $1.86 trillion to National Debt. The pillars of Reagan's economic policy were cutting government spending, tax cuts (income tax and capital gains), deregulation, and tightening the money supply in order to reduce inflation.

Reagan's supply-side economic policies (his opponents referred to these policies as “trickle-down economics”) didn't grow the economy enough to offset the lost revenue from his tax cuts. On top of these policies, Reagan also increased defense spending by 35 percent.

George W. Bush

President Bush added $6.1 trillion to the nation’s debt, the second-largest amount in dollars. This took National Debt from $5.8 trillion in 2001 to $11.9 trillion in 2009 a 105% percent increase.

Unlike Wilson and FDR, Bush presided over two simultaneous wars which were initiated in response to the 9/11 attacks. The War in Afghanistan, which added $1.1 trillion, and the Iraq War, at $1 trillion. This took Military spending from $306 billion in 2001 to $661 in 2009, a 117% increase.

On top of all this, Bush also dealt with two recessions. The recession of 2001 resulted in two tax cuts, one for individuals (The Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act) and one for businesses (Jobs and Growth Tax Relief and Reconciliation Act). The recession of 2008 brought about a $700 billion bailout for banks and financial institutions.

Barack Obama

President Obama holds the title for growing the national debt the most dollar-wise. In total, debt levels increased by $8.34 trillion (70%), from $11.9 trillion in 2009 to $20.2 trillion in 2017. This makes him the President with the eleventh largest increase in National Debt in Presidential history.

Obama continued to fight the Great Recession of 2008 with an $800+ billion economic stimulus package. Like Reagan and Bush 43 before him, Obama instituted tax cuts that added $858 billion to the debt.

However, unlike Bush, Obama decreased spending on national defense by 9.42% and increased expenditure on Veteran Benefits the most, increasing outlays by 85%. His biggest increase in spending came through Social Security, where budgets increased $262 billion.

Andrew Jackson

A discussion of the national debt would be incomplete without mentioning the one President who pulled off what no other president could. On Jan. 8, 1835, Andrew Jackson did the seemingly impossible. He paid off the national debt. [3] When the US Paid Off the Entire National Debt (and Why it Didn’t Last) https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2011/04/15/135423586/when-the-u-s-paid-off-the-entire-national-debt-and-why-it-didnt-last

How he did it requires some background on Jackson himself. Before he was president, Andrew Jackson was a land speculator from Tennessee. When a land deal he made went bad and left him with massive debt and some worthless paper notes, his hatred of debt was formed. When Jackson ran for president, he disliked banks as purveyors of debt and the existence of the national debt itself. He referred to it as the national curse.

To attack the debt, as his first step, Jackson started selling off the most valuable thing the country owned: land. Second, he vetoed every spending bill that came across his desk.

When Jackson took office in 1829, the national debt was around $58 million. By 1835 not only was the national debt paid off, the government ran a surplus. Unfortunately for Jackson, his vision of a debt-free America lasted a grand total of one year.

Long before the Federal Reserve was created, America had a National Bank, which Jackson promptly killed early in his presidency. This left him with nowhere to put the surplus funds the government was amassing after he paid off the debt, so he redistributed the funds to the states. Shortly after that, a real estate bubble occured, which promptly popped, sending the country into recession, which promptly re-created a national debt.

Events & The Sitting President That Changed Debt Levels The Most (since 1916)[6] President Outlay Dat https://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/historical-tables/

  • 2019

    Debt at time: $22,719,401,753,433.70

    President(s): Donald J. Trump

    Effect on Debt: $1,203,343,570,253.50

    Event: Defense spending at $956 billion

  • 2018

    Debt at time: $21,516,058,183,180.20

    President(s): Donald J. Trump

    Effect on Debt: $1,271,158,167,126.70

    Event: Trump tax cuts

  • 2017

    Debt at time: $20,244,900,016,053.50

    President(s): Barack Obama / Donald J. Trump

    Effect on Debt: $671,455,302,116.80

    Event: Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. Congress raises debt ceiling

  • 2016

    Debt at time: $19,573,444,713,936.70

    President(s): Barack Obama

    Effect on Debt: $1,422,827,047,452.40

    Event: Defense spending at $756 billion

  • 2014

    Debt at time: $17,824,071,380,733.80

    President(s): Barack Obama

    Effect on Debt: $1,085,887,854,036.50

    Event: Debt ceiling crisis

  • 2013

    Debt at time: $16,738,183,526,697.30

    President(s): Barack Obama

    Effect on Debt: $671,942,119,311.50

    Event: Sequester/Government shutdown

  • 2012

    Debt at time: $16,066,241,407,385.80

    President(s): Barack Obama

    Effect on Debt: $1,275,901,078,828.70

    Event: “Fiscal cliff”

  • 2010

    Debt at time: $13,561,623,030,891.70

    President(s): Barack Obama

    Effect on Debt: $1,651,794,027,380.00

    Event: Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and Obama tax cuts

  • 2009

    Debt at time: $11,909,829,003,511.70

    President(s): George W. Bush / Barack Obama

    Effect on Debt: $1,885,104,106,599.30

    Event: American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009

  • 2008

    Debt at time: $10,024,724,896,912.40

    President(s): George W. Bush

    Effect on Debt: $1,017,071,524,649.92

    Event: Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act (bank bailout)

  • 2005

    Debt at time: $7,932,709,661,723.50

    President(s): George W. Bush

    Effect on Debt: $553,656,965,393.18

    Event: Hurricane Katrina

  • 2004

    Debt at time: $7,379,052,696,330.32

    President(s): George W. Bush

    Effect on Debt: $595,821,633,586.70

    Event: War in Iraq

  • 2002

    Debt at time: $6,228,235,965,597.16

    President(s): George W. Bush

    Effect on Debt: $420,772,553,397.10

    Event: War on Terror initiated (Afghanistan)

  • 2001

    Debt at time: $5,807,463,412,200.06

    President(s): William J. Clinton / George W. Bush

    Effect on Debt: $133,285,202,313.20

    Event: 9/11 Attacks

  • 2000

    Debt at time: $5,674,178,209,886.86

    President(s): William J. Clinton

    Effect on Debt: $17,907,308,271.43

    Event: Budget surplus

  • 1999

    Debt at time: $5,656,270,901,615.43

    President(s): William J. Clinton

    Effect on Debt: $130,077,892,717.81

    Event: Glass-Steagal repealed

  • 1998

    Debt at time: $5,526,193,008,897.62

    President(s): William J. Clinton

    Effect on Debt: $113,046,997,500.28

    Event: Long-term capital management and hedge fund crisis (precursor to 2008 recession)

  • 1997

    Debt at time: $5,413,146,011,397.34

    President(s): William J. Clinton

    Effect on Debt: $188,335,072,261.61

    Event: Clinton budget surpluses

  • 1996

    Debt at time: $5,224,810,939,135.73

    President(s): William J. Clinton

    Effect on Debt: $250,828,038,426.34

    Event: Welfare Reform

  • 1990

    Debt at time: $3,233,313,451,777.25

    President(s): George H. W. Bush

    Effect on Debt: $375,882,491,589.93

    Event: First Iraq War

  • 1989

    Debt at time: $2,857,430,960,187.32

    President(s): Ronald Reagan / George H. W. Bush

    Effect on Debt: $255,093,248,146.16

    Event: Savings & Loan crisis

  • 1988

    Debt at time: $2,602,337,712,041.16

    President(s): Ronald Reagan

    Effect on Debt: $252,060,821,088.16

    Event: Fed raises rates

  • 1987

    Debt at time: $2,350,276,890,953.00

    President(s): Ronald Reagan

    Effect on Debt: $224,974,274,294.58

    Event: Market crash

  • 1986

    Debt at time: $2,125,302,616,658.42

    President(s): Ronald Reagan

    Effect on Debt: $302,199,616,658.42

    Event: Reagan tax cuts

  • 1985

    Debt at time: $1,823,103,000,000.00

    President(s): Ronald Reagan

    Effect on Debt: $250,837,000,000.00

    Event: Reaganomics begins

  • 1980

    Debt at time: 907,701,000,000.00

    President(s): Jimmy Carter

    Effect on Debt: $81,182,000,000.00

    Event: Volcker raises fed rate to 20%

  • 1978

    Debt at time: $771,544,000,000.00

    President(s): Jimmy Carter

    Effect on Debt: $72,704,000,000.00

    Event: Recession

  • 1975

    Debt at time: $533,189,000,000.00

    President(s): Gerald Ford

    Effect on Debt: $58,129,184,268.45

    Event: Vietnam War ends

  • 1974

    Debt at time: $475,059,815,731.55

    President(s): Richard Nixon / Gerald Ford

    Effect on Debt: $16,918,210,419.46

    Event: Watergate/Budget process created

  • 1973

    Debt at time: $458,141,605,312.09

    President(s): Richard Nixon

    Effect on Debt: $30,881,144,371.59

    Event: Nixon ends gold standard/Oil embargo

  • 1970

    Debt at time: $370,918,706,949.93

    President(s): Richard Nixon

    Effect on Debt: $17,198,453,108.52

    Event: Recession

  • 1965

    Debt at time: $317,273,898,983.64

    President(s): Lyndon Johnson

    Effect on Debt: $5,560,999,726.34

    Event: America involvement in Vietnam begins

  • 1964

    Debt at time: $311,712,899,257.30

    President(s): Lyndon Johnson

    Effect on Debt: $5,853,266,260.89

    Event: War on Poverty

  • 1962

    Debt at time: $298,200,822,720.87

    President(s): John F. Kennedy

    Effect on Debt: $9,229,884,110.82

    Event: Cuban Missile Crisis

  • 1961

    Debt at time: $288,970,938,610.05

    President(s): Dwight Eisenhower / John F. Kennedy

    Effect on Debt: $2,640,177,761.68

    Event: Bay of Pigs

  • 1960

    Debt at time: $286,330,760,848.37

    President(s): Dwight Eisenhower

    Effect on Debt: $1,624,853,770.15

    Event: Recession

  • 1959

    Debt at time: $284,705,907,078.22

    President(s): Dwight Eisenhower

    Effect on Debt: $8,362,689,332.41

    Event: Fed raises rates

  • 1957

    Debt at time: $270,527,171,896.43

    President(s): Dwight Eisenhower

    Effect on Debt: ($2,223,641,752.89)

    Event: Recession

  • 1953

    Debt at time: $266,071,061,638.57

    President(s): Harry S. Truman / Dwight Eisenhower

    Effect on Debt: $6,965,882,853.14

    Event: Korean War cease-fire

  • 1950

    Debt at time: $257,357,352,351.04

    President(s): Harry S. Truman

    Effect on Debt: $4,586,992,490.71

    Event: Korean War

  • 1949

    Debt at time: $252,770,359,860.33

    President(s): Harry S. Truman

    Effect on Debt: $478,113,347.34

    Event: Transition to a post-war economy

  • 1947

    Debt at time: $258,286,383,108.67

    President(s): Harry S. Truman

    Effect on Debt: ($11,135,716,064.59)

    Event: Cold War begins

  • 1946

    Debt at time: $269,422,099,173.26

    President(s): Harry S. Truman

    Effect on Debt: $10,739,911,763.33

    Event: Employment Act of 1946/Recession

  • 1945

    Debt at time: $258,682,187,409.93

    President(s): Franklin D. Roosevelt / Harry S. Truman

    Effect on Debt: $57,678,800,188.80

    Event: World War II ends

  • 1944

    Debt at time: $201,003,387,221.13

    President(s): Franklin D. Roosevelt

    Effect on Debt: $64,307,296,891.23

    Event: Bretton Woods agreement - US dollar becomes standard for global currency

  • 1942

    Debt at time: $72,422,445,116.22

    President(s): Franklin D. Roosevelt

    Effect on Debt: $23,461,001,580.51

    Event: World War II/Defense spending triples

  • 1940

    Debt at time: $42,967,531,037.68

    President(s): Franklin D. Roosevelt

    Effect on Debt: $2,527,998,626.57

    Event: Tax increase

  • 1939

    Debt at time: $40,439,532,411.11

    President(s): Franklin D. Roosevelt

    Effect on Debt: $3,274,792,095.66

    Event: Great Depression ends

  • 1936

    Debt at time: $33,778,543,493.73

    President(s): Franklin D. Roosevelt

    Effect on Debt: $5,077,650,869.20

    Event: Tax increases

  • 1935

    Debt at time: $28,700,892,624.53

    President(s): Franklin D. Roosevelt

    Effect on Debt: $1,647,751,210.05

    Event: Social Security

  • 1933

    Debt at time: $22,538,672,560.15

    President(s): Herbert Hoover / Franklin D. Roosevelt

    Effect on Debt: $3,051,670,116.02

    Event: New Deal

  • 1932

    Debt at time: $19,487,002,444.13

    President(s): Herbert Hoover

    Effect on Debt: $2,685,720,952.42

    Event: Tax increase

  • 1930

    Debt at time: $16,185,309,831.43

    President(s): Herbert Hoover

    Effect on Debt: ($745,778,652.67)

    Event: Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act

  • 1929

    Debt at time: $16,931,088,484.10

    President(s): Calvin Coolidge / Herbert Hoover

    Effect on Debt: ($673,204,717.33)

    Event: Stock market crash

  • 1917

    Debt at time: $5,717,770,279.52

    President(s): Woodrow Wilson

    Effect on Debt: $2,108,526,017.36

    Event: Second Liberty Bond Act (debt ceiling)

  • 1916

    Debt at time: $3,609,244,262.16

    President(s): Woodrow Wilson

    Effect on Debt: $551,107,389.00

    Event: World War I

Sources