WASHINGTON -- This week, President Barack Obama promoted tougher fuel efficiency standards for trucks. He touted progress on initiatives to strengthen the U.S. patent system. And he signed an executive order intended to speed up the process for approving import or export cargo.

Welcome to Obama's self-proclaimed "year of action," where hardly a day goes by without the president and his top advisers trumpeting policy initiatives the White House is undertaking without the help of Congress.

The mostly modest actions -- far shy of the sweeping immigration overhaul Obama hoped for this year -- put into sharp focus the president's limitations as he grapples with reluctant lawmakers in an election year. They also underscore how much has changed for Obama since the early days of his presidency, when he declared, "We do big things."

Yet the flurry of executive actions does seem to be having a cathartic effect inside the White House, which needed a jolt after a frustrating and disjointed 2013 that included the flawed rollout of Obama's signature health care law and a sharp drop in the president's approval ratings. Advisers who ended the year dispirited now appear buoyed by a new sense of purpose -- and the prospect of working around a Congress that has long been an irritant to the president.

"People came back from the break over the holidays in a real positive frame of mind," said David Axelrod, an adviser to the president. "You don't want to be the prisoner of a negative narrative that somehow Congress has stymied the president and nothing can get done."

Signaling how little the White House expects to change on Capitol Hill this year, Obama communications director Jennifer Palmieri said advisers are already mapping out plans for executive actions to be unveiled well into the fall and winter. That process, she said, "has ignited a lot of creative thinking around here."

Even so, the president's political standing looks little better. His approval rating continues to hover in the mid-to low-forties. Democrats are on edge about their prospects of retaining control of the Senate. And hope of securing an immigration overhaul -- Obama's one legislative goal that appeared to have some chance of success this year -- faded when House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, announced this month that a measure was unlikely to pass in 2014.

In the absence of legislative action, the White House is pumping out a constant stream of executive actions on issues touching the economy, education and climate change. Some are relatively modest or simply prod along plans that were already in motion.

For example, an executive order Obama signed on Thursday to streamline the import and export process established a deadline for an effort that was already underway. And much of what the White House touted Tuesday on truck efficiency standards had already been announced by Obama during a climate change speech last year. Still, Obama personally heralded an incremental step forward in the process, even traveling to a Safeway distribution center in nearby Maryland to highlight steps the grocery store chain has taken to make its fleet of trucks more efficient.

Other executive actions are intended to be more wide-ranging, including a partnership with businesses that promised to not discriminate against the long-term unemployed during hiring and $750 million in private sector commitments to expand Internet access in schools.