An aura of excitement and predictability surrounds the president’s annual State of the Union speech: A few days of hyped drama and TV punditry build to a political Woodstock featuring generals, justices, senators, Cabinet secretaries and House members, all under one roof. Up in the balcony, the First Lady plays host to a few iconic citizens who recently shared a heroic moment of fame with America.
Environmentalists are on higher-than-normal alert this year, after President Barack Obama made a sweeping inaugural promise to tackle climate change, an issue he had largely avoided during his first term.
If the president reprises that theme in Tuesday’s speech, he’ll join a long list of predecessors warning that we’re leaving a mess for future generations. And if past is prologue, the green talk and pageantry may be the only things delivered on the president’s lofty words.
In 1993, Bill Clinton assailed the failure of the federal Superfund toxic waste cleanup program. For more than a decade, he complained, attorneys and consultants siphoned off Superfund dollars while few toxic sites got cleaned. “I’d like to use that Superfund to clean up pollution for a change and not just pay lawyers,” Clinton told Congress and the nation.
Twenty years later, EPA still runs a gantlet of insurers, politicians, angry neighbors and, of course, polluters who are less than anxious to help pay for cleanup. More than 1,300 polluted sites remain on the Superfund list, while fewer than 400 “cleaned” sites have been delisted. The lawyers are still getting paid.