"He can't do big infrastructure investment, and the big changes to immigration have to go to Congress," said Gus Faucher, a senior economist at PNC Financial. "Given what the president is facing with Congress, by definition all of the things he going to be able to do by executive order are small bore."
Frustrated by inaction on Capitol Hill, Obama Tuesday promised to issue an execute order boosting the lowest wage for federal contractors to $10.10 an hour, in hopes that Congress will follow his lead and boost the base wage for all workers. At $7.25 an hour, the federally mandated minimum is well below its 1968 peak of $10.71 an hour when adjusted for inflation.
(Read more: Forget the State of the Union, focus on the Fed)
"America does not stand still - and neither will I," the president said. "So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that's what I'm going to do."
If Congress fails to follow his lead, the measure would provide wage relief for only several hundred thousand workers.
To help those who have been out of work the longest, Obama pressed business leaders to promise not to discriminate against long-term unemployed Americans. While such an initiative might reduce the average duration of unemployment, it would likely do little to boost the overall pool of new jobs growth, said Faucher.
(Read more: Boosting theminimum wage: A long, uphill fight)
"Presumably if they're doing that, they're not going to hire the short-term unemployed," he said. "So on net it's unclear whether that adds much overall to job growth and economic growth."
—By CNBC's John Schoen. Follow him on Twitter @johnwschoen or email him.