From Wilson to Trump, the US Presidents who have overseen the biggest changes in the national debt – 24/7 Wall St.


Special report

Calls for fiscal responsibility and debt reduction are common in Washington DC, but a clear commitment to achieving these goals is not. The federal government has not had a balanced budget for two decades, and partly for that reason, American taxpayers have to pay more than $ 28.4 trillion in accumulated national debt.

The ability to accumulate debt is an important function of the federal government. Deficit spending can boost economic growth, strengthen social safety nets, and provide funding for national emergencies. However, keeping that debt at manageable levels often requires difficult and politically unpopular decisions – decisions few US presidents seem prepared to make.

Using federal government data, 24/7 Wall St. determined the effect every U.S. president has had on total national debt over the past 100 years. Presidents have been ranked according to the evolution of the national debt between the start of their first fiscal year and the end of their last. Debt figures are not adjusted for inflation.

While U.S. presidents have mandatory spending obligations, such as Social Security and Medicare, they have some level of control over discretionary budgets, as well as taxes. Yet a president’s budget, as well as any proposed changes to the tax code, must be approved by Congress. As a result, when it comes to balancing federal spending and revenue, a president’s relationship with lawmakers is important. Here’s a look at the presidents with the best and worst connections with Congress.

In addition, US presidents often face unforeseen challenges that take precedence over a balanced budget. Most of the largest increases in the national debt have taken place during times of national crisis. The attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II are the ultimate example. More recent examples include the economic recovery during the 2008 financial crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. Other factors, such as GDP growth, can help or hinder a president’s budget goals. Here’s a look at what the stock market has been up to under every president over the past 100 years.

Click here to see the presidents who oversaw the most significant changes in the national debt.
Click here to see our methodology.


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