A Fabulous Failure: The Clinton Presidency and the Transformation of American Capitalism

Nelson Lichtenstein

Princeton University Press, 2023

Agent: Sandra Dijkstra

How the Clinton administration betrayed its progressive principles and capitulated to the right

When Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, he ended twelve years of Republican rule and seemed poised to enact a progressive transformation of the US economy, touching everything from health care to trade to labor relations. Yet by the time he left office, the nation’s economic and social policies had instead lurched dramatically rightward, exacerbating the inequalities so troubling in our own time. This book reveals why Clinton’s expansive agenda was a fabulous failure, and why its demise still haunts us today.

Nelson Lichtenstein and Judith Stein show how the administration’s progressive reformers—people like Robert Reich, Ira Magaziner, Laura Tyson, and Joseph Stiglitz—were stymied by a new world of global capitalism that heightened Wall Street influence, undermined domestic manufacturing, and eviscerated the labor movement. Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, and Al Gore proved champions of this financialized world. Meanwhile, Clinton divided his own party when he relied on Republican votes to overhaul welfare, liberalize trade, and deregulate the banking and telecommunications industries. Even the economic boom Clinton ushered in—which tamed unemployment and sent the stock market soaring in what Alan Blinder and Janet Yellen termed a “fabulous decade”—ended with a series of exploding asset bubbles that his neoliberal economic advisors neither foresaw nor prevented.

A Fabulous Failure is a study of ideas in action, some powerfully persuasive, others illusionary and self-defeating. It explains why and how the Clinton presidency’s progressive statecraft floundered in a world where the labor movement was weak, civil rights forces quiescent, and corporate America ever more powerful.


"Academics Lichtenstein, author of State of the Union: A Century of American Labor, and Stein, author of Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies, approach their subject from the left side of the political spectrum. In this collaboration, they revisit the years of the Clinton administration, wondering why it moved so far from the quasi-socialist views of its early days to embrace a globalist neoliberalism that helped Wall Street more than Main Street. In the opening section of an overlong text, the authors offer an adequate review of the ideological development of Clinton and many figures within his administration, but this story has been told many times, including by Clinton himself. Lichtenstein and Stein are reluctant to criticize the Clinton years, so instead they focus on identifying a wide range of villains. They are initially unsure whether the Republicans who opposed Clinton’s early agenda were stupid or evil; eventually, they opt for both. They blame centrist Democrats. They blame the voters who handed control of Congress to the GOP in 1994. They blame various billionaires. The media. Larry Summers. Al Gore. It’s a long list. The authors believe that if Clinton had stayed on the left, and even marched further out to the edge, he would have won huge electoral support. However, that scenario didn’t seem likely then, and it does not seem likely in hindsight. The bigger question, however, is, why are the authors rehashing these events? If Lichtenstein and Stein are calling for a return to the days when big labor told the Democratic Party what to do, it does not sound like much of a way forward. The book may appeal to those on the left who are fascinated by their own myths, but other readers may take a pass. A progressive perspective on why the Clinton administration delivered so little." —Kirkus Reviews

A Fabulous Failure is a brilliant analysis of how Bill Clinton fell short in delivering to average Americans. Deeply researched, it takes a fresh look at the way Clinton’s policies, whether on free trade, financial deregulation, or other matters, often favored corporate America and Wall Street over working Americans, fueling income inequality and harming blue-collar communities.” —Steven Greenhouse, author of Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor

“A major and much-needed reconsideration of the Clinton years. A Fabulous Failure provides an original take on why this president moved the American political economy in the post–New Deal direction that he did, and offers essential insights into why the Clinton era was so pivotal to our world today. This book is a must-read for understanding why the Democratic Party is no longer the party of the working class.” —Meg Jacobs, Princeton University

“Equipped with a profound knowledge of political economy and policymaking, Nelson Lichtenstein and Judith Stein brilliantly explain how the liberal ambitions of the Clinton administration gave way to a dubious agenda of neoliberalism. Their book is the wisest history of the 1990s that has yet been written. Crafted with authority and graceful prose, A Fabulous Failure is a splendid success.” —Michael Kazin, author of What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party

“Lichtenstein and Stein have written the definitive account of the Democratic Party’s descent from FDR’s New Deal into neoliberal captivity and its political result—Trump and Trumpism. Their prodigious research informs this superb historical narrative of ideological seduction and political corruption. Clinton’s fabulous failure was a huge success for the financial elite. The rest of us are still paying the price.” —Robert Kuttner, founding coeditor of The American Prospect, author of Going Big: FDR’s Legacy, Biden’s New Deal, and the Struggle to Save Democracy