The total debt inherited from all prior administrations

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by Grover

  • President – The president responsible for approving the budget.
  • Fiscal Years – The budget years that the president approved.
  • Years – Total number of budget years approved
  • Debt Inc. – The debt increase (in $billions) during the FYs of the president’s term in office
  • Total Debt – Total debt (in $billions) after president’s term in office ends
  • Debt/Yr – Simple calculation of Debt Inc. divided by Years (in $billions)
  • Yearly % – Simple calculation of Debt/Yr divided by prior administration’s Total Debt
  • Total % – Simple calculation of Debt Inc. divided by prior administration’s Total Debt
President Fiscal Years Years Debt Inc. Total Debt Debt/Yr Yearly % Total %
FY1789-1913 FY1789-1913 N/A $2.90 $2.90 N/A N/A N/A
Wilson 1914-1921 8 $21 $23.90 $2.63 90.5% 724%
Harding 1922-1923 2 $(2.00) $21.90 $(1.00) -4.2% -8%
Coolidge 1924-1929 6 $(5) $16.90 $(0.83) -3.8% -23%
Hoover 1930-1933 4 $6 $22.90 $1.50 8.9% 36%
FDR 1934-1945 12 $236 $259 $19.7 85.9% 1031%
Truman 1946-1953 8 $7 $266 $0.88 0.3% 3%
Eisenhower 1954-1961 8 $23 $289 $2.88 1.1% 9%
JFK 1962-1964 3 $23 $312 $7.67 2.7% 13%
Johnson 1965-1969 5 $42 $354 $8.40 2.7% 13%
Nixon 1970-1974 5 $121 $475 $24.2 6.8% 34%
Ford 1975-1977 3 $224 $699 $74.7 15.7% 47%
Carter 1978-1981 4 $299 $998 $74.8 10.7% 43%
Reagan 1982-1989 8 $1,860 $2,858 $232 23.3% 186%
GHW Bush 1990-1993 4 $1,550 $4,408 $388 13.6% 54%
Clinton 1994-2001 8 $1,400 $5,808 $175 4.0% 32%
GW Bush 2002-2009 8 $5,850 $11,658 $731 12.6% 101%
Obama 2010-2017 8 $8,590 $20,248 $1,074 9.2% 74%
Trump 2018-2021 4 $4,780 $25,028 $1,195 5.9% 24%
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Note that Trump’s numbers are projections through his first term. Also note that this chart only shows the “cash balance” deficit. It does not include unfunded liabilities – civil servant pension shortfalls, Trust Fund shortfalls, etc.

So, why did I go through this effort? There are several ways to look at the data. There are absolute numbers like who added the most debt to our balance sheet. That number gets distorted by the number of years in office. Also, since interest on inherited debt adds to the actual amount the president is responsible for, it makes sense to look at percentages rather than absolutes. Even then, economic conditions at the time have outsized influence on debt. Is it fair to judge FDR’s 1031% total increase in debt VS Coolidge’s 23% decrease in debt without saying, “yeah, but …”?

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The 4 presidents that have earned the least respect from me are all over 100% increase in total debt on this chart. The least respected is “W” for 9/11 and its fallout. FDR comes next for swallowing all the Keynesian BS that extended the depression and got us into WWII. Wilson is next for creating the federal reserve. Fourth is Reagan for acting so robustly on Cheney’s “deficits don’t matter” advice.

Although Obama and Trump are well below 100% increases, that is only because the base they inherited was sooooooo large. It’s the total debt that will eventually spook bond investors enough that they won’t fund the government at such piddly yields that we’ve had recently. What will the government do when interest rates become unaffordable? Rising interest rates will likely affect the economy negatively. At the same time that financing the debt becomes more onerous, tax receipts will plummet, and safety net expenditures will skyrocket.

I’m sure it will all be portrayed as Russia’s fault.

Grover

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