One the running themes in President Obama's 2014 State of the Union address was that he was ready to act on his own if he can't get Congress to pass legislation. That meant anything from executive orders to partnerships with corporations.
"So," Obama said, "wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do."
But as it turns out, there's less to that statement than meets the eye. Below are seven of the concrete steps Obama said he'd take on his own. Most of the economic moves are relatively small-bore. Only a few, like his environmental regulations for power plants, are potentially far-reaching (though he'd already announced that one earlier):
1) Boost the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10 per hour. This will be phased in slowly, starting in 2015 -- the federal government will give preference to companies that pay workers higher wages. This could raise pay for some 200,000 workers, although it will only affect future federal contracts, not existing ones. See here for more details.
All told, it's a relatively incremental step. Boosting the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, by contrast, would require an act of Congress. (And here's an earlier look at why economists disagree so much on whether a higher minimum wage helps or hurts unemployment.)
2) Create a basic new type of retirement savings account. Obama said he'd use his executive authority to create a new "myRA" (short for "my Retirement Account") that would be offered through employers.
Here are the basics: Workers could have a portion of their paycheck deducted into a simple account that invested in U.S. government bonds. The myRA would get the same tax treatment as IRAs and have a maximum balance. The idea would be to provide very basic retirement accounts to workers who don't have company pension plans or 401(k)s.
3) Urge chief executives to end the discrimination against the long-term unemployed. As we've seen, studies have found that companies are much, much less likely to hire people who have been jobless for 26 weeks or more -- even if they're similar in every other way to other workers. This is bad news for the long-term unemployed, who find it harder and harder to get back into the workforce.
So Obama is essentially trying to raise awareness about this sort of discrimination by asking companies to pledge to give the long-term unemployed a chance. But there are no laws or rules to enforce it, so it's unclear what effect this will have. (For an optimistic gloss on this, see Jonathan Chait, who argues that "discrimination against the long-term unemployed is a kind of cultural problem in and of itself.")
4) Ratchet up fuel efficiency standards for trucks. The Obama administration has already used its existing authority to hike average fuel-economy standards for cars and light trucks to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 (that's around 36 miles per gallon in practice). Now its focusing on heavy-duty trucks.
It's unclear what the targets are here, but under existing rules, big rigs and semi-trucks already have to improve their fuel efficiency 20 percent between 2014 and 2018. This new announcement would presumably build on that.
5) Review federal job-training programs. This is in a White House fact sheet: "The President is directing the Vice President to conduct a full review of our federal job-training system to make sure programs are higher performing and driven by the needs of employers which are hiring so that they lead to well-paying jobs. In the coming months, we will help community colleges build partnerships with businesses so that as industries’ skills needs change community colleges can quickly adapt."
6) Create four new manufacturing hubs. Back in his 2013 State of the Union, Obama promised to create three new "manufacturing hubs," which would help businesses partner with the Department of Defense and Energy to help regions hurt by the collapse of manufacturing become high-tech centers.
Those hubs were slow to get going -- he's only created one so far, in Raleigh, N.C. In his speech tonight, Obama promised to use his executive authority to create four more. (See Mark Muro at Brookings for an explanation of the rationale behind these hubs.)
7) Set limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants. This is actually an old one -- Obama pledged to do this in June of 2013.
So far, the EPA has used its Clean Air Act authority to set carbon standards for future coal- and gas-fired plants that have yet to be built. This year, the agency will turn its attention to existing power plants, which are responsible for 40 percent of the nation’s carbon-dioxide output. The agency has a fair bit of leeway here -- the rules could end up being relatively light or quite strict.
For further reading on this, check out my colleague Glenn Kessler's look at which of Obama's 2013 promises succeeded and flopped.
The full White House fact sheet for its executive actions is below: