U.S Presidential Debt Accumulation And The Winner Is

A little over a year ago, I posted an article that looked at the last ten Presidencies and examined which Presidents were the most fiscally responsible by looking their record of adding to the national debt.  Since the U.S. is now in the thick of the election cycle and both sides of the political spectrum are tossing about their ideas for fiscal realignment and debt and deficit responsibility, I thought that it was time for an new look at whether the Republicans or the Democrats have historically been the most responsible spenders.
 
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 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 President, 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 in the case of Nixon.
 
Here's the chart showing the Presidents in chronological order with the debt at the beginning of each President's term, the debt at the end of the term, the amount in nominal dollars by which the debt grew, the total percentage that debt grew over the President's full term and the length of the President's term (in years and months expressed as a decimal):
 
 
Note that I also threw in a somewhat less commonly used but more accurate growth calculation, the compound annual growth rate or CAGR.  This shows the compounded growth rate of the debt accrued each year over the entire term of a given President if the growth rate was steady over every year of his term as defined using this equation:
 
Here is the same data but placed in order of compound annual growth rate from least to greatest:
 
 
Lastly, here is the same data but placed in order of the size of nominal debt added from least to greatest:
 
 
It's surprising to see that, despite the massive arms buildup related to both the Cold War and the Vietnam War along with growing expenditures for the space race, that both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations come in with the lowest compound annual growth rate.  As well, the same factors plus the added costs of a very poor economy (think Middle East oil crisis) affected the Nixon era and yet, the compound annual growth rate of the debt was less than half its current level.  Not surprisingly, a few years of budget surpluses in the later 1990s helped the Clinton administration keep debt growth to a paltry 37 percent over its entire tenure in the White House.
 
I was taken back by the fact that the Reagan administration had, by a wide margin, the largest overall growth in debt as a percentage and using the compound annual growth rate.  During the eight-year term of Ronald Reagan, the debt grew by a massive 188.84 percent or a compounded annual growth rate of 14.18 percent.  While many Democrats blame the Bush II administration for debt accumulation, the compounded annual growth rate is actually firmly in the middle of the pack.  The same cannot be said for the Bush II additions to the nominal debt (second highest) and overall debt growth rate over the entire term (also second highest).  President Obama now has the distinction of having broken the record for the highest nominal debt increase, however, as a percentage increase, he is sitting in fourth place after Presidents Reagan, George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush.
 
It is interesting to look back at the last 50 years and see where America's debt problem began to blossom and under which political party the debt saw its greatest growth.  I hope that this helps you put into historical context some of the spending and revenue programs that the current Presidential candidates are offering voters.
 
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