Special Report

US Presidents Who Oversaw the Largest Changes in the National Debt

Source: library_of_congress / Flickr

18. Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929)
> Change in federal debt during presidency: -24.2% (-$5.4 billion)
> Total federal debt first year in office: $22.3 billion
> Total federal debt final year in office: $16.9 billion
> Party affiliation: Republican
> Americans today with a positive opinion of Coolidge: 35% of adults

The U.S. debt fell by 24.2%, or $5.4 billion, from the beginning of fiscal 1923 to the end of fiscal 1929, the years spanning Calvin Coolidge’s presidency. A rapidly growing economy in the wake of World War I, in addition to limited spending, allowed Coolidge to reduce the federal debt even while cutting taxes.

However, economic growth and deregulation under Coolidge also brought growing inequality and worsening economic hardship for American farmers — all factors that contributed to the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression.

Source: Billy Hathorn / Wikimedia Commons

17. Warren Harding (1921-1923)
> Change in federal debt during presidency: -6.8% (-$1.6 billion)
> Total federal debt first year in office: $24.0 billion
> Total federal debt final year in office: $22.3 billion
> Party affiliation: Republican
> Americans today with a positive opinion of Harding: 27% of adults

President Warren Harding is widely regarded by historians as one of the worst presidents in U.S. history. However, despite being plagued by corruption scandals, Harding is one of only two presidents in the last 100 years to reduce government debt. Decidedly pro-business, Harding’s policies included tax cuts and protective tariffs.

Harding took office in 1921, when the federal debt totalled $24.0 billion. Due in part to growing prosperity following World War I, U.S. debt stood at $22.3 billion at the end of fiscal 1923, the year he died of a heart attack while in office.

Source: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

16. Harry S. Truman (1945-1953)
> Change in federal debt during presidency: +2.9% (+$7.4 billion)
> Total federal debt first year in office: $258.7 billion
> Total federal debt final year in office: $266.1 billion
> Party affiliation: Democratic
> Americans today with a positive opinion of Truman: 51% of adults

Serving as vice president for only a few short months before President Franklin Roosevelt died in office, Harry Truman took the oath of office on April 12, 1945, becoming the 33rd President of the United States. Presiding over Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II, Truman was tasked with transitioning the country to a peacetime economy in the face of organized labor strikes, rapid inflation, and congressional opposition to his progressive agenda. During Truman’s first full year in office, U.S. GDP fell by 11.6%, as the economy suddenly contracted after the war.

With the goal of balancing the federal budget, Truman increased taxes and minimized spending — policies that were ultimately tweaked following a period of economic stagnation. The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 also led to increased government spending and strong economic growth. Overall, U.S. debt climbed by 2.9%, or $7.4 billion, over the years of the Truman Administration — the smallest increase under any president in the last 100 years.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

15. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
> Change in federal debt during presidency: +5.8% (+$16.9 billion)
> Total federal debt first year in office: $289.0 billion
> Total federal debt final year in office: $305.9 billion
> Party affiliation: Democratic
> Americans today with a positive opinion of Kennedy: 73% of adults

John F. Kennedy’s presidency was short and tumultuous. From Jan. 20, 1961, the day he was sworn in, to Nov. 22, 1963, the day he was assassinated, Kennedy’s time in office was defined not only by escalating Cold War tensions abroad, but also by an ambitious domestic agenda.

Taking office at a time of rising unemployment, falling corporate profits, and a stagnating stock market, Kennedy made turning the economy around a priority of his administration. Not only did he expand Social Security and unemployment benefits, increase the minimum wage, and invest in infrastructure, but he also pushed for reduced taxes, insisting that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Though his tax cuts did not receive congressional approval until three months after his assassination, Kennedy’s policies led to a reduced federal deficit and strong returns on Wall Street. U.S. debt climbed by a relatively marginal 5.8% from fiscal 1961 to fiscal 1963.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

14. Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961)
> Change in federal debt during presidency: +8.6% (+$22.9 billion)
> Total federal debt first year in office: $266.1 billion
> Total federal debt final year in office: $289.0 billion
> Party affiliation: Republican
> Americans today with a positive opinion of Eisenhower: 61% of adults

Dwight D. Eisenhower was not a typical politician. Before running a successful campaign for president in 1952, Eisenhower served as a four-star general in the U.S. Army and then as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe in WWII. As president, Eisenhower prioritized a balanced budget, resisting pressure from the right to cut taxes while not shying away from investing in the country’s future. During his presidency, Eisenhower built the St. Lawrence Seaway, started NASA, and most famously created the Interstate Highway system — investing $119 billion in the construction of 41,000 miles of roadway.

In addition, Eisenhower expanded Social Security, increased the minimum wage, and created the Departments of Health, Education, and Welfare. Even with these investments, federal spending as a share of GDP fell during Eisenhower’s presidency — a feat no president since can claim. Eisenhower is one of only five presidents in the last 100 years to oversee a U.S. debt growth of less than 10% during his time in office.

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