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  • Chart of the Week: U.S. Presidents Ranked by Budget Deficits

    Over the past 50 years, 10 U.S. presidents have made annual budget requests to Congress, projecting deficits both big and small. But no other president compares to Barack Obama when it comes to the size and scale of the current budget deficit facing the United States.

    The country is facing an 8.3 percent estimated average national deficit of a two-term Obama administration — the biggest of the past 50 years. By comparison, the current estimate for Obama is nearly double the percentage under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush — and they were fighting the Cold War.

    Political party doesn’t tell the whole story, however. President Bill Clinton leads the pack of presidents since 1961, according to data from the White House Office of Management and Budget. Heritage put together this graphic as part of our Budget Chart Book.

    So what does the current trajectory mean for the United States? We’re certainly no longer looking at a continuation of manageable deficits in the years to come. This is a dramatic change in the magnitude of annual shortfalls at the federal level. That’s one reason Heritage came up with a plan to fix the debt crisis.

    If you have a suggestion for a chart we should feature in the future, please post a comment below, email us at scribe@heritage.org, or send me at tweet @RobertBluey.

    Posted in Featured, Scribe [slideshow_deploy]

    59 Responses to Chart of the Week: U.S. Presidents Ranked by Budget Deficits

    1. How about comparing the labor force participation rate with the number of folks on food stamps.

      I think you'll find some interesting things (here's a try at it, but not with your graphic abilities):

    2. sara says:

      Why is HOLDER not out by now?

    3. Ed Turk says:

      Budget deficits obviously do not matter. No one is excited with a figure like 1.2 TRILLION. I'd like to drop by in 2112 and see what the United States looks like.


    4. citizenkane says:

      umm.. I believe Clinton ran a budget surplus… The debt to GDP ratio decreased from about 70% down to around 32% during his term….

      • GBJeff says:

        Umm…the Republican congress during the latter part of Clinton's tenure seemed to have ran a surplus when in fact it was a structural deficit because excess social security funds were loaned to the general fund.

        • dmac4445 says:

          but the deficit was still approx 1tril unlike the onslot of the 9tril over the next eight years.

    5. So what you are saying is that if Bush had actually accounted for the wars he and Cheney started as Obama has, it would show that Obama has pulled us out of a recession. I'm curious why you've left this out of your equation on the graph. Are you sincerely trying to mislead the public or are you just painfully unaware.

      • Demolosers says:

        Yeah, its all Bush's fault, even though Obama and every other Democrat voted we go to war too. They are just as guilty of it as Bush is. He didn't pull us out of any deficit we borrow more money per dollar spent than any other president in history. I am sure that's Bush's fault too.

        • puellagina says:

          Ummmm, Obama didn't vote that we go to war. The pointless war is not just Bush's fault, though, Cheney shares the blame for that.

      • DawnJulio says:

        She didn't say enough. What about inflation….the printing of more and more money? What about the fact that the obama administration has spent more money that ANY OTHER PRESIDENT? So sick of hearing that it's Bushes fault for the mess we are in. Obama is the mess and continues to be the mess. He is not for the United States of America. A president who cancels national prayer day "as not to offend anyone" but then turns around and prays with the Muslims? Goodness! We have a president who bypasses congress and signs all these executive orders (on Fridays, no less) abusing his presidential power. BECAUSE he knows that the his own senate and House would not do so. What we have is a dictator wannabe. I could tell you more but enough said. do your homework and don't just go to the progressive left sites.

    6. g w h says:

      how come the democratic presidents have such low deficit percentages? except for Obama.

      • mmdccbslm says:

        because the debt service on the national debt left by bush-the-lesser is so high. the national debt went from 5.5Trillion to 13Trillion under such reckless stewardship. the national debt is missing from this misleading graph.

    7. Judith S. Brune says:

      The Heritage Center should draft a "Voting Primer" that provides a detailed list of all of the negative acts of President Obama and their effects, all of the promises he has made and failed to deliver, all of his negative history prior to being elected (Ayers, Sutton, Black Panthers, Wright,, use of drugs, poor editiorial performance at Harvard Law, Radical Islam connections, etc.), and his failures as a State Senator (He did nothing in the U.S. Senate except run for President so nothing to list there!). Republicans would buy this primer not only as an authoritative resource to speak against Obama's re-election, but also to give to their Independent and Democratic friends to see how destructive this President has been and why. It should be in a paperback pamphlet which could be purchased in sets of 10.

    8. Michael D. Black says:

      With the exception of Obama the top ranking deficit spenders are all Republican. To quote the beloved Charlie Brown: "That makes my stomach hurt!"

      • Mike says:

        Re-do the chart ….show deficits with respect to who controlled Congress – and it will be an eye-opener.
        The chart starts with JFK ….and the Democrats controlled both houses from well before 1960 until 1981.
        1981 to 1987, Dems controlled the House (where spending bills must originate), and Republicans controlled Senate.
        1987 – 1994, Dems controlled BOTH House & Senate
        1995 – 2006, Republicans controlled BOTH House & Senate
        2007 – 2010, Dems controlled BOTH House & Senate
        2011 – … Republicans control House, DEMS control Senate.
        When control of Congress is split – the big spenders have more power.
        Even when big spenders are a large minority in the Senate, the big spenders can coerce/force higher levels of spending by filibustering bills and impeding progress.

    9. David says:

      I would like to see a chart that compares the deficit to the majority in the House and Senate. The house should have more power over the budget than the president in most cases.

    10. A Very interesting Chart.. Obama appears to be leading the wrong deficit race. One major flaw in this chart is: GW Bush's war deficits were kept completely off his National Books. Obama has spent plenty on his own without padding the results . Eight years of Iraq & Afghanistan war expense Belong on the previous administration chart. … Bush's -3.2% is more like -6.8%…..
      ….Obama's -8.3% is more like -5.8%.. Honestly ,You can still make the argument Obama is spending too much money… But Please don't pretend Bush/Cheney didn't open the Flood Gates of deficit spending..
      May we all have a better New Year with less war more Peace and smarter spending.

    11. Joe Gersich says:

      But look at who was running Congress under Clinton – Newt Gingrich! He was the one who did it, not Clinton.

      • dee says:

        During Newts tenor, Newt and his cronies voted no to all of Clinton's proposals. Please check the republicans voting record during this period. The economy is slowly turning around. Do you credit the republicans whom voted no to all of Obama's proposal.

      • woody says:

        So doesn't that make the Republican congress responsible for today's mess? Or do you want to have it both ways?

      • susan williamson says:

        that makes me want to throw up –

      • Jimmy says:

        Okay, with that logic John Boehner is responsible for this deficit, not Obama! You can't play that game without playing it all the way!

    12. Keith Brock says:

      Wow! Obama is the number one at something!

    13. Rick Rittel says:

      So, over the past 50 years, not one president has been able to decrease the deficit. And you wonder why Ron Paul is getting traction.

    14. A Very interesting Chart.. Obama appears to be leading the wrong deficit race. One major flaw in this graph is: GW Bush's war deficits were kept completely off his National Books. Obama has spent plenty on his own without padding the results . Eight years of Iraq & Afghanistan war expense Belong on the previous administration chart. … Bush's -3.2% is more like -6.8%….. Obama -8.3% is more like 5.8% Still too High and in the wrong direction. Creative accounting has gotten our country in big trouble. This Graph exemplifies that point . I wish us all a healthy and leaner economic New Year.

      • Bobbie says:

        thank you for your sentiment, Kevin. Excellent point to consider bush's deficit was in regard to the national interest where Obama's deficit reflects special interests.

        • If by "National Interest" you mean starting a war in the wrong country; looking for WMDs that never existed? Then, OK. The Biggest financial "Special Interest" that benefitted from the Iraq war is Cheney's private war Contractor Halliburton. Obama actually killed the masterminded of 9/11 (for pennies on the dollar)…The Defict spending Obama has done is like the spending one does when the roof is blown off your house… It cost money to fix a broken House.. Make no mistake Bush/Cheney Broke it- Obama owns it.. (like his second term)

          • Bobbie says:

            I take considerations into account when it comes to human error. In this case, Bush and his cabinets. The only noise I heard Osama make before he was killed was his concern regarding man made global warming "scam." He's only part of a bunch of "masterminds?" what's easier than to kill people? mastermind? the deficit spending Obama "has done" is avoiding necessary repair using money on top of money on top of money to hide the levels of corruption he works. He hasn't made any attempt in fixing anything broken by bush. He's made it more complicated, adding more complications causing him a need for more government reinforcement, at more of our cost!!
            Thieving money doesn't fix this broken house! It's up to principled American people with integrity.

            • I sited Hallibutton and the Iraq war as specifics of Fraud… I don't know why you brought up
              Climate change..I was not discussing the weather …The Foundry Article is about the deficit trends of:
              Bush vs Obama.
              They do not give Bush credit for the Trillions of dollars he spent in Iraq and Afghanistan wars;
              Not to mention the loss of life… Calling Invading the Wrong country using false information,
              pretending the entire cost doesn't exist; Then saying that cost belong the the next President as simple: "Human Error" is a very weak argument.
              I get it you don't like Obama (and maybe Government in general?) But why would you try and defend this False Graph as anything but misinformation. Obama has spent lots of money not very wisely i.e. (Bank Bailout without reform) But the Iraq War is not one them. I follow both Conservative and Liberal media, both skew information… This article is a whopper….. Good Luck with the #GOP Candidate in 2012.. whoever that might be….

              Is pretty weak argument.

      • I sited Hallibutton and the Iraq war as specifics of Fraud… I don't know why you brought up Climate change.. I was not discussing the weather …The Foundry Article is about the deficits of Bush vs Obama. They do not give Bush credit for the Trillions of dollars he spent in Iraq and Afghanistan wars …..
        Debt increases by presidents: Reagan 186%, Bush 54% Clinton 41% Bush II 72% Obama 23%. Source CBO ..These numbers are most recent numbers can be found here: http://t.co/pktMrId….
        Note that Clinton didn't really have the surplus that is often touted and repeated.. Just % Less relative to the rest of the pack…

        • Bobbie says:

          I brought up credit to your's of the killing of a mastermind! I'm not sure how Halliburton effected my livelihood as much as I am sure this transformation of the conduct of leadership is and will effect mine and my families livelihood.

          The percentages are misleading in what they stand for. As far as previous presidents, different conditions make percentages ( tax base and others.) Less people are paying in today when better governing would see to it more to be fair. He points the finger to justify his decisions but fails the people when his decisions don't help out but actually hurt when he ignores the respects of the people's constitutional advice which is what his duty consists of. Making rational decision and having good judgment and respect for all Americans is very important in American leadership roles. In the presidency, it's expected.

    15. buck says:

      This falls right in with Obamass plan to bankrupt the country so that he can rescue it with his progressive socialist policies with minimal resistance , of course if it fails he always has the option of force .

      • Claire Wells says:

        I highly doubt he'll be using force. This is just another progressive president. Its about the constitution, not spending. erasing it costs money. Hardly the first president to do it, hardly the last.FDR did it best. Most people think he's the best president ever.

    16. Chanell says:

      I am not surprised that Obama has the highest ratio.

    17. Jeanne Stotler says:

      Since he thinks he's one of the top 4 Presidents, this confirms it, he's the top spender of all and in the top 4, this puts Bush 5th.

    18. ScottS says:

      Pres. Obama has fought 2 armed conflicts with unprecedented hunt and killing of terrorists. That Reagan & Bush were fighting the "Cold War", which did not involve any armed conflicts is a non-starter.

      8.3% of GDP is a terrifying number. Is GDP presently lower after adjusted for inflation than in eras of prosperity?

    19. Jannani says:

      I wonder what will happen if Obama is a two term president?

    20. Mike, Wichita Falls says:

      So is the best scenario is a divided government…as long as the GOP is truly conservative and at least controls the House? For all of Newt's problems, no other GOP candidate can actually claim to have restrained the federal government. For someone trying to "win the future", I don't think he makes a big enough deal of this accomplishment.

      LBJ looks pretty good in this chart except that the two big entitlement programs he promoted and signed into law have made and are making it more difficult for future Presidents to run balanced budgets much less surpluses and actually fund Constitutional duties. What is to stop current politicians from scoring political points by making grandiose promises with which future politicians must eventually deal? If those programs are not repealed right away, then it becomes a competition over who can better manage them. Repeal Obamacare!

    21. Karen S says:

      Looks like republicans have historically been bigger spenders but Obama has surpassed ever their best efforts

    22. Luke,read this man, and you can see that Bush wasn't bad, historically speaking, and we were fighting two wars to boot…

    23. Ciel says:

      Obama only came into office with an economy cratering as rapidly as during the Great Depression and thus with tax receipts also suffering in kind. But toss up a graph like this all ya want. It's great red meat for low information voters, isn't it.

      • Bobbie says:

        good point. the man saw from the senate all that was happening to this country. as records show, he had no input then! so he decides he'll become president because he now knows how to fix it? after all, his experience in government social work of engineering is probably greater than any other president's. I don't think any other president was ever a community organizer or needed to be at any time in America. his experience is so great all this country's ruins is right in the palms of his hands. he abuses his authority which lays heavy burdens on most while he steps over the line patronizing human decencies and dignities. He refuses advice or corrections and discipline that are necessary to the recover of the damage caused while causing more beyond our control, within the control of government. Hopefully voters who may be without political knowledge will want true information for the better of America's strength and not for the weak of a society convinced self pity and unearned entitlements betters a nation…

    24. reelman1946 says:

      The chart is actually INCOMPLETE w/o an asterisk indicating which Party controlled congress under each President. Remember O-Neil promised Reagan his demo-socialist Party would cut to match or exceed the tax cuts…of course he did not…revenues went up nearly 100% in 8 years but the democrats spend all the excess and more.

    25. Norm says:

      Our United States of America is being raped, robbed and trampled under ultra-liberal feet. We citizens of the United States are being railroaded by the warped agenda of a " pseudo-president." Obama's political accumen is totally dependent on the bevy of Constitutuion destroying, hatchet-persons surrounding him. LET'S SAVE AMERICA The COUNTRY WE LOVE…where we enjoy..LIFE, LIBERTY and the PERSUIT OF LIBERTY….Next November…Let's move the Obama's OUT OF THE WHITEHOUSE…!

    26. steve h says:

      Wrong again – the president cannot veto budget resolutions. I believe it would be more useful to show which president's policies have created the deficit and debt – the policies on the previous administration (Medicare Rx plan, 2001 and 2003 stimulus/tax cuts, and the two wars) adds far mroe to debt over next decade than anything under the current administration.

    27. Americanbybirth says:

      Obama shows such large deficits due to his use of Keynesian economics, what he calls stimulus. This empirically-proven-to-fail economic theory developed by Richard Keynes takes into account the large deficits shown by the Obama administration. The theory goes that with governmental stimulus, the economy will restart and the deficit will be solved through tax increases. THIS DOES NOT WORK. We have seen an average growth in the GDP of .02% since the crash in 2008, that is much less than the 10+% increases the United States saw under President Ronald Reagan (he used the theory of Supply Side economics [i.e. tax cuts]), in addition Reagan ran relatively smaller deficits and defeated communism in the USSR.

    28. Chris says:

      this chart is a BOGUS representation of facts. It shows the budget deficit as a percentage of GDP…which is irrelevant. A budget deficit is a budget deficit — I don't care of the GDP is 1000% higher than the deficit. If the government is spending more that it is taking in … that is a problem ..and to use a chart like this to try to hide it is a GROSS misrepresentation of TRUE facts. Still trying to find it … but I saw an article which stated in all but TWO of the past 100 years .. the federal government has operated in a DEFICIT (SPENT MORE THAN IT HAD). THAT ..is OUTRAGEOUS.. and any organization that tries to hide this mismanagement is nothing but a part of the problem.

    29. Frustrated says:

      Our government is way too big and complicated for the average person to understand. I really believe that most Americans do not understand that the only form of revenue our government has is through taxation. The united states government does not make or sell anything to generate cash. Government assistance is not a lifestyle. People need to be accountable for themselves. We the people should hold our government accountable. vote for "to change" our President!

    30. Paul says:

      What president ran a 91 percent Budget Deficits to GDP? it was Eisenhower as he paid to put in highway and for GI to get education. Public spending that lead to all we have today!!!

    31. Just da facts says:

      Creative accounting, as well as a lack of Wall Street and banking oversight, has gotten this country into big trouble. Just once, I'd like to see a fair and impartial analysis of performance from an unbiased organization. But hey, with the Supreme Court's Citizen's United ruling, nothing will ever be unbiased as unlimited PAC dollars for federal, state and local elections should guarantee the "bribing" of elected officials in perpetuity.

    32. Jjjones says:

      This desperate escape route of "Bush" and "war deficits" is pathetic. Our issue with current national debt has perhaps been affected in small amounts by war deficits; however, to blame Obama's consecutive trillion dollar deficits on discretionary spending (Bush's or not) is just idiotic. When the actual budget is analyzed, everyone of authority on the subject seems to agree that in the past 50 months, our budget/deficit increases are due to non-discretionary spending. Besides, the whole article is misleading: read the constitution- congress controls the budget. Yeah the president is involved in the process, but Congress turns the wheels as far as budget/financing are concerned. If you put budget trends on a graph over who controlled/shared congress- you would see a very clear trend, blue congresses raise the deficit.

    33. Halstrom says:

      You all are aware that NO REPUBLICAN has signed a balanced the budget since Eisenhower during the 1950s, right? Surely you all know that. Just like you all are aware of the fact the last five balanced budgets have occurred under democrat presidents (LBJ, Clinton). Obviously the house's majorities varied during those times. I'm not saying dems are perfect and GOP is not. Both parties have created debt, started wars, raised taxes etc, avoided dealing with social security or medicare. Beng on either side is fine, but you have to stick with facts, not fiction.

      Now there's plenty to criticize Obama about. Things that could potentially win the White House back for the GOP. But there are also facts that suggest the opposite. There's so much for each side to legitimately debate without the fiction that has everyone's attention. Check out the link below to get some facts regarding the US debt, because some of you really DO NOT KNOW what the hell you're talking about.

    34. Kiltedbear says:

      This is beyond stupid. Obama gets a poor rating because he inherited the worst economy in our life time and gets a poor grade because the GDP is low? What next? A poor rating because of all the hurricanes and tornadoes? This is beyond a joke!

    35. Lynne Liggett says:

      We are cursed to live in interesting times!

    36. Clown says:

      Of course Obama is number 1 at that duh. Tell us something new smarty pants. Obama took office at the beginning of the biggest recession since the great depression. The context should not be left out like that. Would you wanted him to cut spending with an economy down on his knees? He is not god you know!

    37. James Wilson says:

      Reagan TRIPLED the national debt, from $907 billion to $2.6 trillion. George Bush DOUBLED the debt, from $5.6 trillion to $10.6 trillion. Obama has increased the debt 50% in four years, despite a collapsed revenue stream and unprecedented social welfare costs from the Great Recession. The Tea Party should beatify him. Franklin Roosevelt increased the debt 600% from 1940 to 1945, won World War II and dropped unemployment to below 2%. What harm did his deficits do to our country?

    38. mmdccbslm says:

      what the chart should show, if ACCURACY and not politics were the goal, would be the national debt at the beginning and end of a presidents term. the fact that raygun TRIPLED THE NATIONAL DEBT and bush2 MORE THAN DOUBLED THE NATIONAL DEBT figures quite prominently into how Obama got that 8.3 percent value. the NATIONAL DEBT WAS ALMOST $13Trillion when Obama took office and service on the national debt is ridiculously near a Trillion on its own. this is a bogus chart. period.

    39. Mary Martin says:

      Yes I too would like to know who controlled the Senate and House of Representatives and how well our economy was doing people who add Reagan and Bust Sr. together, Bush Sr. neither increased nor lowered deficits but oh no do not give him any credit let's blame Republicans and applaud the worst deficit in years

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