President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address Tuesday night to signal he won't yield from an ambitious regulatory agenda in his second term despite a deeply divided Congress and the likelihood of steep spending cuts.
Addressing head on GOP attacks that he has overreached in the size and scope of government, Obama said that "it's not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government."
But at the same time he signaled a willingness to use his executive powers to achieve results if Congress can't enact policies, especially in the environmental and energy arena.
Lawmakers should pass legislation that creates a market-based approach to reducing carbon emissions, but "if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will," Obama declared.
"I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy," he added.
He made no mention, however, of regulations on carbon emissions from existing coal-fired power plants, which are expected from the Environmental Protection Agency. Obama also did not address the proposed Keystone XL oil sands pipeline from Canada, which is backed by the oil industry but opposed by environmental groups as a climate threat.
Obama called for smaller energy objectives to be met, including the creation of his proposed Energy Security Trust to funnel federal oil and gas revenues to alternative vehicle development.
He also call for improved energy efficiency through the goal of cutting wasted home and business energy by half over 20 years.
Though often at loggerheads with the oil and gas industries, the president acknowledged the advances of hydraulic fracturing have unleashed an energy boom that has kept electric price steady and made possible the once-unthinkable goal of reaching North American energy independence by the end of the decade.
Obama said he would encourage further domestic fossil fuel production by "cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits." And on natural gas, Obama said he will ask Congress to approve new research "that helps natural gas burn even cleaner and protects our air and water."
Still, the president faces difficult battles ahead as he tries to eliminate tax breaks from the oil and gas industry, weighs whether to approve the Keystone pipeline and keeps large swaths of federal lands and offshore waters from fossil fuel exploration.
On other energy issues, Obama called for aging pipelines and the electricity grid to be improved through a "Fix-It-First" infrastructure repair program. And he revealed that he signed an executive order earlier in the day to improve the government's ability to deter cyber-attacks, while still calling on Congress to pass a broader cybersecurity bill.
The White House said the traditional lone member of Obama's Cabinet not to attend the speech was Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who has announced his departure from the administration in the coming weeks.