Historic Budget Deficits by President

In spite of nearly ongoing talk about balancing the budget, the United States government regularly fails to do so. So who is responsible for the biggest budget deficits in U.S. history?

You could argue that it's Congress, which approves spending bills. You could argue it's the president, who sets the national agenda, delivers their budget proposals to lawmakers, and signs off on the final tab. You could also blame it on the lack of a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution or not enough use of sequestration. The question of who's to blame for the biggest budget deficits is up for debate, and will ultimately be decided by history.

This article deals solely with the numbers and the size of the biggest deficits in history (the federal government's fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30). These are the five biggest budget deficits by raw amount, according to data from the Congressional Budget Office, and they haven't been adjusted for inflation.

$1.4 Trillion - 2009

President Bush Holds News Conference
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The biggest federal deficit on record is $1,412,700,000,000. Republican George W. Bush was president for about a third of the 2009 fiscal year, and Democrat Barack Obama took office and was president for the remaining two thirds.

The way in which the deficit went from $455 billion in 2008 to the largest ever in the country's history in just one year — a nearly $1 trillion increase — illustrates a perfect storm of two main antagonistic factors in a country already fighting several wars and a depressed economy: low tax revenues thanks to Bush's tax cuts, coupled with a huge spending increase in spending thanks to Obama's economic stimulus package, known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

$1.3 Trillion - 2011

President Barack Obama
Official White House Photo/Pete Souza

The second-largest budget deficit in U.S. history was $1,299,600,000,000 and occurred during President Barack Obama's presidency. To prevent future deficits, Obama proposed higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans and spending freezes to entitlement programs and military expenses.

$1.3 Trillion - 2010

Barack Obama
Mark Wilson / Getty Images News

The third-largest budget deficit is $1,293,500,000,000 and came during Obama's presidency. Although down from 2011, the budget deficit still remained high. According to the Congressional Budget Office, contributing factors to the deficit included a 34 percent increase in payments for unemployment benefits provided by various laws, including the stimulus package, along with additional ARRA provisions.

$1.1 Trillion - 2012

Obama Benghazi Picture
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The fourth biggest budget deficit was $1,089,400,000,000 and occurred during Obama's presidency. Democrats point out that although the deficit remained at one of its all-time highs, the president had inherited a $1.4 trillion deficit and yet was still able to make progress on lowering it.

$666 Billion - 2017

Donald Trump at Podium
Darren McCollester

After several years of decline in the deficit, the first budget under President Donald Trump resulted in a $122 billion increase over 2016. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, this increase was due in part to higher outlays for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, as well as interest on the public debt. In addition, spending by the Federal Emergency Management Administration for hurricane relief climbed by 33 percent for the year.

In Summation

Despite continual suggestions by Rand Paul and other members of Congress on how to balance the budget, projections for future deficits are grim. Fiscal watchdogs like the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimate that the deficit will continue to skyrocket. By 2020, we could be looking at another trillion-dollar-plus discrepancy between income and spending.

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Murse, Tom. "Historic Budget Deficits by President." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/historic-budget-deficits-by-president-3368289. Murse, Tom. (2020, August 26). Historic Budget Deficits by President. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/historic-budget-deficits-by-president-3368289 Murse, Tom. "Historic Budget Deficits by President." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/historic-budget-deficits-by-president-3368289 (accessed May 28, 2023).