The first calls on the Department of Transportation to make automakers improve fuel efficiency in 2011 model year cars and trucks. The second instructs the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider its Bush-era denial of California's request for a waiver from the Clean Air Act. The state had been seeking to set tougher emission standards than exist nationally.
Mr. Obama's nominee for EPA administrator has previously said she would reconsider the denial of the waiver request and hinted she would overturn it.
The auto industry has long opposed such actions. Allowing California and other states to set their own emissions standards, they argue, will force automakers to effectively produce different cars for different regions – the last thing, they say, the struggling industry needs.
When California was denied the waiver back in 2007, it sparked outrage, with California Sen. Barbara Boxer, chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, dubbing it an "outrageous decision" that ran "completely contrary to the law and science."
Mr. Obama tied his actions today to American national security, saying, "America will not be held hostage to dwindling resources."
He added that "urgent dangers to our national security are compounded by the long-term threat of climate change" and complained that when states like California made efforts to set tougher emissions standards, "Washington stood in their way."
"My administration will not deny facts," he said. "We will be guided by them."
As for the auto industry, the president said, "We must help them thrive by building the cars of tomorrow." Shortly after his comments, General Motors announced it would cut 2,000 jobs at plants in Michigan and Ohio because of slow sales.
"The President's action today is disappointing," House Republican Leader John Boehner said in a statement. "The effect of this policy will be to destroy American jobs at the very time government leaders should be working together to protect and create them. Millions of American jobs will be placed in further jeopardy if automakers are forced to spend billions to comply with potentially dozens of different emissions standards in dozens of different states."