Tuesday, August 9, 2011

America's Presidents: Who was the biggest spendthrift?

Updated to June 8th, 2012

Many Americans point accusatory fingers in one of three directions as one would suspect when discussing which President was responsible for America's crippling sovereign debt load - it is all President Obama and the Democrat's fault, blame is laid at the feet of former President Bush II or the fickle finger of accusation points to the intransigence of the Republicans.  The partisan nature of the debate got me thinking that it would be interesting to see which President is, in fact, responsible for the greatest increase in federal debt over their term as a percentage of the debt during their tenure at the helm.  This task is somewhat complicated by the fact that one has to take into account the length of the President's term to get an accurate idea of how much the debt grew on an annual basis.  When looking at this data, please note that the dollars used are not corrected for inflation.

I looked back over the past 50 years at the debt issues that faced the last 10 administrations.  For my source material, I took data from the Treasury Direct website (a virtual goldmine of information) and used their very handy monthly search function to examine the debt history for the years and months in question.  To ensure that you understand how I used the numbers, for example, for the beginning of President Nixon's term as the Big Guy, I took the debt recorded on January 31st, 1969 as linked here.  Since there is not a daily breakdown that gives us an accurate debt figure for January 20th, 1969, the debt at the end of President Johnson's term was assumed to be the debt figure recorded for January 31st, 1969 just as it was assumed to be the debt figure for the beginning of President Nixon's term.  Where Presidents did not finish their terms (i.e. JFK), I used the debt to the end of November 1963 as his final debt number as I did in the case of Nixon.

Here's the chart, in chronological order, with the debt at the beginning of each President's term, the amount in dollars by which the debt grew, the total percentage, the length of the President's term (in years and months expressed as a decimal) and the compound annual growth rate of the debt as a percentage for each year of that particular President's term:

I realize that the compound annual growth rate (here's a definition of CAGR for those who care) is a rather odd number to use and that it may not be to everyone's liking, but I found that it was most interesting to see just how much debt grew as a percentage of itself for each year that the last 10 Presidents resided in the White House.

Here's a summary of my findings in order by compound annual debt increase from least to greatest:

The lowest overall annual percentage increase in the debt award goes to President Kennedy.  During his tenure, the debt grew by only 2.24 percent annually despite the fact that there was ongoing tensions and military buildup related to both the Cold War and Vietnam as well as the ramping up of the American space program.  The same might be said for President Johnson who comes in second with an increase of only 3.17 percent per year over his five year term as President.  Surprisingly enough, the worst President for building up the debt was the much venerated President Ronald Reagan considering that the Cold War buildup ended under his tenure.  In fact, I was so surprised that I went back and triple checked the numbers and my calculations because the debt growth was so out of line with the other Administrations in this study.  Under the Reagan Administration, the debt rose a massive 188 percent or 14.18 percent on an annual basis, far worse than either the Bush I, Bush II or Obama Administrations.  I was rather surprised to note that, in comparison, Presidents Bush I, Ford and Obama added between 11 and 13.73 percent per year to the debt.  President Bush II, considered by many to be a spendthrift administration because they added a rather massive $4.9 trillion to the debt, actually added only 8.07 percent per year to the federal debt over his eight year term, the second lowest annual increase in the past 35 years and still just under 4.1 percentage points lower than President Obama who is only three years and a half into his first term.

I apologize for the brevity of this posting (it took me quite a while to assemble the data and complete the calculations) but I hope that this, for once and for all, answers the question "Which President is responsible for the debt issues facing America today?".  The numbers don't lie and they don't play political games, do they?


  1. Don't show this to any Republicans, they don't like facts getting in the way of a good myth.

  2. Good post but it does not take into account/properly reflect the fact that Presidents' actions affect future outflows and debt increases. For instance LBJ is hugely underweighted because Medicare and Medicaid, which are huge debt-drivers, fueled the debt almost entirely after he left office. Very interesting nonetheless.

  3. PJ your letting your lefty bias show...yes Ronnie was a big spender but thats over 8 years,now if Obama X gets the full 8 years,an he will, at some point he will have to cut spending on Wars,Medicare and revamp SS,but will he? no.

  4. Hey third post, first off the table factors in the eight years vs. say 2.5 years. But compare BHO with say GF, both were 2.5 years. But Ford never had an imploding economy, the Bush era tax cuts, the nutters in congress who will not raise taxes (I'm looking at you Michele Bachmann.) Inherited two major wars, Vietnam was over for America by Ford's time. And so on. Please do your home work, the fact is Regan raised taxes, and massively raised the debt. So did Ford, Obama and both Bushes.

  5. This is my point,Obama X will not cut back on the War spending(hope an change was all about) and Medicare bill was a roll over an play dead for GOP...yes MB is more of a nut job then SP..thats why Mr Smooth will be back in 2012...but he will have to cut Gov. spending and tax credit for Biz/jobs growth...he just has to man up an do it.

  6. Look at the increase by Reagan!!!! It is my opinion that Obama inherited so many many problens with alll the wasted spending on the wars that he had to spend in order to stabilize the economy. Please comment.....I am a senior who has more commen sense than book sense. Will someone truly use the KISS principle and let me know which is the President that did most good for the economy of the USA and was also able to keep the spending down?

  7. Shouldn't this be weighted by who was in control of Congress as well? Clinton would have spent more if not for the repubs taking control. I'm neither for the stupid party or the evil party, but many of these Presidents had to deal with opposition Congresses.

  8. Interesting post.

    As others have mentioned, I would love to see an analysis of policy actions initiated (e.g. Medicare, Reagan tax cuts, Iraq & Afghanistan, Bush II Tax cuts) and their cumulative effects on the national debt. To state the obvious, this would be quite the undertaking.

  9. Next step partial out the biggest deficit-increasing programs and reallign them into the presidents buckets. So tax cuts for the wealthy round 1 goes to Bush2, Round 2 goes to Obama.

    1. No, actually, round two goes to the idiot voters who stuffed the already recalcitrant congress with a bunch kamikaze representatives who were intent on drowning the gov. in a bathtub.

  10. Interesting data - thanks for posting!! I believe the real number you are after is debt increase as a percentage of GDP.

  11. Obama has done well because he inherited two expensive wars and bad economy, yet his percent per year debt is not as bad as Bush II and Reagan, both whom claimed to be fiscally conservative.

  12. "Obama has done well because he inherited two expensive wars"

    That should keep deficits high but that will not account for CONTINUED quick deficit growth.

    The wars are two major past expenses that he can save but instead of winding down those wars, he started a third one.

  13. All I see is the national debt getting bigger, year after year and administration after administration, Republicker or Democrap. Republickers want to claim fiscal responsibility when they are just as bad a Democraps with our fortunes. We are getting robbed at both ends to make huge profits for Capital Hill Cronies. We need another party, for real. Maybe "The Citizens Party" would work for citizens of this country....or maybe they would be co-opted by the status-quo and become a distraction like the Tea Party did. What a joke, our politicians are robber barons that never lose, ever, they are so out of touch....they never have to worry about anything, if they lose and election they just go to work for the companies they were ALREADY working for. What a scam. Keep playing off each other like the left/right wings aren't part of the same bird. We are the bird, we should be making the decisions about where the wings take us, it is reversed now. The wings fly us where ever they want and right now we are looking at a freshly cleaned pane of glass. They are going to fly us to our deaths if we let them. We need to stop fighting over B.S issues and realize that the majority of Americans all of the same goals, life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The politicians only have their goals, which are the goals they were bribed to have, which are at odds with the rest of the country. Wake up before we hit the window, again.

  14. debt may not be all that bad. If our govt. debt was zero imagine how small economy would be. Reagan, bush Jr. and obama were all fighting economic contraction. Economics is not linear arithmatic

  15. Oh please. Presenting these statistics as a percentage is intellectually dishonest.

    If, in real dollars adjusted for inflation, President X raises the debt from $1 to $3, and President Y raises to debt from $3 to $6, your method means that President Y was much more fiscally responsible.

    You're either a mentally deficiant liberal who thinks through their "feelings", or you're simply an evil partisan hack who has no problem lying to sway the simple minded.

  16. RE jeenious,

    why do you think he focused on percentages instead of 1-3, 3-6? Maybe you are a 'mentally deficiant' conservative.

  17. You can't spell deficient... Your point also makes no sense whatsoever. The poster you are insulting is saying that looking at real inflation adjusted dollar amounts is more telling than percentages. Your response makes utterly no sense considering what he/she is saying.

  18. Reagan got a broken economy from Carter. Inflation over 10%, interest rates over 10% unemployment as well. Reagan did turn the economy around after 3 years which our current dude did not. Debt was high for Reagan because he cut tax rates and complexity of the tax code. Something following presidents undid when they were in office.

    Voodoo worked. Lower taxes for all, lower complexity for all, spend money on defense R&D (Unlike Wars) that resulted in most of the technology that you use today. Computers, CD, internet you know results of Star Wars defense spending. What tech and industrial boom did we get from giving Goldman Sachs and their friends a trillion dollars Mr. Obama?

  19. How about running the same numbers for the governmental body that really decides spending: Congress?

    The President has relatively low input into the process. He sends a budget message to Congress, which is always ignored. Then Congress sets a budget in legislation that does not even get signed by the President. The annual spending bills are then passed, and do get signed, but are almost always so late as to make after passage changes impossible.

    As an individual, the President has a lot of power compared to any one Congressman. But as an institution, the Congress vastly outweighs the Executive's influence on all fiscal matters.

    The only time the President has relatively high sway can be said to be when the same party controls both the House and the Senate in Congress, as well as the White House.

  20. The most important figure missing is the momentum, what was the last budget of the previous president versus the new president's average:
    Obama averages 13.73%, but the last Bush budget, the one he inherited (9/2008-9/2009) added 19% to the federal debt.
    Bush II averages 8.07%, he started with Clinton's final 2%,
    Clinton 4.03% from Bush I's 9%
    Bush I 11.48% from Reagan's 10%
    Reagan 14.18% from Carter's 10%
    Carter 9.32% from Ford's 12%
    Ford 12.99% from Nixon's 4%
    Nixon 5.3% from Johnson's 2%
    Johnson 3.17% from Kennedy's 2%
    Kennedy 2.24% from Eisenhower's 1%

    I used the same website for raw data as Political Junkie, and provide no decimals for this is quick and dirty. Inflation topped 10 in 1974 and from 1978 to 1983, which biases against Nixon, Reagan and mostly Carter.

    Conclusion, Ford added an average 9% to the deficit, Bush II added 6%, Reagan added 4%. Clinton reduced the deficit by 5%, Obama 5%, Carter 3%. No other presidents in the last 50 years averaged better than the budget they inherited. Personally I had not expected Carter on that side of the divide.

    Considering the fact that this years budget is supposed to come out at 7%, Obama will be the biggest deficit cutter in the contest. Please don't tell the Tea Party.

  21. FY 9/2008-9/2009 includes the Stimulus so it's a slight misnomer to say that Bush added 19% to the budget in that FY as 25% of that period was his Presidency and 75% under Obama. Obviously one would want to breakdown spending by month (TARP and other bailouts in Fall '08 should add to the debt)to see accurately the percentage added to debt.

  22. As always, there is more to the data than meets the eye.

    JFK's low figure resulted largely because of implacable opposition to his grandiose schemes. His rhetoric may have inspired the world, or at least the left wing of it, but he could not get his spending programs through the Congress.

    When JFK was assassinated, LBJ decided he could use his credentials as a Southern Democrat (an honorable title in those days, fiscal conservative, favoring military strength, and oriented toward creating a better society for all) plus JFK's programs and rhetoric to be all things to all people. "Guns AND butter" proved to be more than the economy could provide, and more than other Southern Democrats were willing to go along with, so his contribution to increasing the debt was much less than would have been the case without such opposition.

    Reagan walked into a situation that had never fully recovered from LBJ's delusion of creating The Great Society, compounded by Carter's ineptness in economic matters. He spent money were he believed it most necessary (combating communism), cut where he could, and compromised when he judged he had to. He left the Federal Government much as he had left California state government, larger and more in debt than when he took over the reins, but he had given it his best.

    Clinton's low number was, like JFK's, largely a result of opposition to his programs in the Congress, chiefly Republican this time rather than Southern Democrat (which had been destroyed as an honorable and influential factor by LBJ's debacle). The best I can say for Bush I and II was that they attempted to follow Reagan's example: Spend money were it was most critical, cut where possible, and compromise where one had to. Unfortunately, either the Bush presidents lacked Reagan's skill, or maybe the opposition had gotten tougher and more demanding.

    But I not thaet BO's record is right up there in percentage terms, and if you look at actual numbers (real or current $$ figures, take your pick), he is leading the pack and well on the way to burying this once-great nation in debt and its consequences.

  23. You're all still missing something important - although inflation-adjusted %debt increase is close. The debt numbers are skewed by the yearly variations in revenue,much of which was not real or sustainable.

    For instance, the stock mania and resulting taxes in the late 90's brought the current account deficit to zero, making Clinton look responsible; really he just got a free ride. Of course, after the 2000-2002 crash, tax revenues went in the toilet making W look even dumber. I'll bet Clinton was as bad as Reagan, HW, etc.

    The right way to do this analysis is to take %increase in SPENDING vs. GDP, per year of presidency. My guess is ALL of these presidents will look like profligates with double-digit increases per year. ALL BAD, and no free rides from unsustainable tax revenue from bubble financial market speculation

  24. It is my thoughts and opinions that Obama inherited so numerous many problens with alll the wasted investing about the wars that he experienced to spend

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  25. JFK cut taxes and, like his father, was pro-business.

    Apparently, he wasn't a big government spender like his brother Teddy (or was Jack just beginning a spending spree & his life was tragically cut short before he ran us deeper into deep?).

  26. Most of Obama's spending his first year was due to programs put in under Bush. Any analysis that takes the first day of a presidency as the start of their economic policy is simply wrong. Bush and Congress passed the TARP bailouts and stuff in the final months of 2008, 99% of the spending under that went out in 2009. SO putting that onto Obama is not going to show an accurate picture. TARP+Stimulus+ lower revenues accounts for most of the spending red ink in 2009.
    You might as well make this same chart and link it to who won the World Series if you are not going to actually look at whose policies were in force. It is just as random, at least until you get into second terms.
    They say figures don't lie, but liars figure. Having lived through the various presidents and following the news and politics even as a kid, these numbers don't match how I recall shit went down. Move spending into the category of the president who actually approved it, take into account changes in book-keeping....realize Bush II kept the wars off books, Obama moved them back on to them as one of his first acts. Just this one book keeping difference is IIRC something like 30% at least of the increase in Obama's official spending totals as compared to Bush's.

  27. You left leaning revisionist historians refuse to admit one hard, cold fact about the Bush II Budget and Obama's Budget. Bush's budget for his last two years in office was not his, it was a series of continiouning resolutions by the Dem Congress. So Obama's assertion that the economy was the "worst since the Depression (which; by the way, he had to revise, since he started out as the "worst economy ever") was - IN FACT - the worst since the Depression; he just faild to admit to the public that it was a Dem. Congress Budget - much as they are doing for Barry right now. No where is you info showing that Bush II didn't have a budget his last two years in office - the tax and spend Dem. Congress hijacked it. Maybe if you would include some stats on that, you might be a little closer to accurate! At this point, your honesty is suspect. Your info. seems to be structured in a manner constant with most government grants given to universities for research. That is as follows: "Here is our question - here is the answer we want - here is the money - now you fill in the middle." Sorry.

  28. the fact that there was ongoing tensions and military buildup related to both the Cold War and Vietnam as well as the ramping up of the American space program. The same might be said for President Johnson who comes in second Cheap LOL Account

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