Here is one very brief history:
Each state was given primary responsibility for assuring that emissions sources from within their borders are consistent with the levels designated by the NAAQS. In order to achieve these goals, each state is required to submit a State Implementation Plan (SIP) to the EPA to ensure the implementation of primary and secondary air quality standards…Since many states failed to meet mandated air quality standards first set by the Clean Air Act, Congress created the 1977 amendments to aid states in achieving their original goals.
That is just one bit of course. More broadly, people focus on The Clean Air Act of 1970, but of course the original legislation was from 1963 and it was extremely ineffective because it had inadequate popular support and the issue was not yet a major concern. It had to be revised/amended in 1965 and 1967 and 1970 and then also 1977 and 1990. Yet the 1963 act did set definite standards for stationary (but not mobile) pollution sources and mandated a timetable for adoption, albeit with a lot of state flexibility for meeting the new standards. All of that went nowhere. And that was an act passed directly by Congress, not just an Executive Order. Even in those days, a lot of actual progress in the fight against air pollution came through the replacement of dirty coal by natural gas, a process which had started in the 1920s and spread through America in successive waves.
Here is a typical paragraph about early policy ineffectiveness, from a useful essay:
By 1970, it was “abundantly clear” to Congress that federal legislative efforts to fight air pollution were inadequate. State planning and implementation under the 1967 Act had made little progress.Congress attributed this “regrettably slow” progress to a number of other factors including the “cumbersome and time-consuming procedures” in the 1967 Act, inadequate funding at the federal, state, and local levels, and the lack of skilled personnel to enforce pollution requirements. Commentators have also suggested that federal legislation prior to 1970 failed because of both an inability and an unwillingness on the part of the states to deal with air pollution.
When I read about the new Obama plan, I am reminded of 1963, and also 1965 and 1967. For all of the hullaballoo you are hearing — whether positive or negative — keep this in mind.
Addendum: Most of the best sources on the 1963 Act are off-line. But here is an interesting essay about some of the federalistic issues behind the enforcement of the various Clean Air Acts, mostly post-1963. Here is the text of the 1963 law, for one thing it is amazing how short it is.