budgets, 1792-1994 (from John Steele Gordon, Hamilton's Blessing, a surprisingly interesting book on the history of the national debt):
1792-1930: government runs a surplus 93 times, a deficit 46 times.
World War I reversed the balance of payments situation, making the U.S. a net creditor. During the prosperous Roaring Twenties Presidents Harding and Coolidge actually reduced the national debt by about one-third.
1930-1994: government runs a surplus 8 times, a deficit 56 times.
In only two New Deal years, 1934 and 1936, did the federal deficit, as a percentage of gross national product, exceed the 4.6 percent of Herbert Hoover’s last year in office. The year 1936 saw the New Deal’s biggest absolute deficit, $4.4 billion, or 5.3 percent of G.N.P., largely because Congress -- over Roosevelt’s veto -- passed the notorious Bonus Bill, awarding some $2 billion to World War I veterans. Meanwhile, Roosevelt was crafting his most memorable reform, Social Security, on a markedly – indeed, uniquely -- conservative fiscal basis. “No dole,” he instructed the legislative drafting team. “Mustn’t have a dole. No money out of the Treasury.” Instead, Social Security was to be funded ever after by matching payroll contributions from employers and employees. The following year Roosevelt warmly embraced the conventional budgetary counsel of Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau and submitted an austerity budget, sharply contracting government spending and thereby triggering the so-called Roosevelt Recession. The already wheezing economy withered rapidly. Unemployment ballooned to 19 percent from 14 percent. Not until World War II generated deficits of nearly 30 percent of G.N.P. did the economy finally rebound and unemployment all but disappear.
Between 1946 and 1960, the government runs a surplus 7 times and a deficit 7 times, meaning that in the other years (1930-46, 1960-94) the government ran a surplus once and a deficit 49 times.
This is the root of the modern conservative complaint about the increasing size of government. Yet Nixon's policy was was surprisingly more liberal than it was conservative. His failure to obtain more revenue through tax reform legislation in 1969, combined with rising unemployment (4.9 percent) and inflation (5.7 percent) rates in 1970, prompted him to become the first president to submit a budget based on “the high-employment standard,” which meant the country would spend as if it were at full employment to bring about full employment, thus justifying an “acceptable” amount of deficit spending. In, the federal budget deficit totaled $23.03 billion, he proudly proclaimed himself to be a conservative Keynesian. When Nixon resigned in 1974, inflation was 11 percent and unemployment 5.6 percent, but the deficit was down to $6.14 billion. Ironically, when Reagan became president -- and began to cut taxes -- the federal deficit was 2.5 percent of the national economy. When he left, eight years later, the deficit was 5 percent of the economy. Interest payments on the debt jumped to $169 billion in 1988 from $69 billion in 1981.
(If you'd like to read more, the notes on the budget are condensed from an NYT feature called "Presidents and Their Debts.")