Missing from the chamber was Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., the Cabinet member taken to an undisclosed location to be prepared to take control of government should catastrophe strike the Capitol.
In keeping with tradition, first lady Michelle Obama hosted average Americans in her box, including several students from the D.C. area.
Also joining her were Leonard Abess Jr., chief executive of City National Bank of Florida, who in November shared with his employees some of the $60 million in proceeds he made from the sale of City National shares, and Ty’Sheoma Bethea, an eighth-grade student from Dillon, S.C., who wrote Congress asking it to help rebuild her crumbling school.
Recalling his own visit to her school, Mr. Obama read from Ty’Sheoma’s letter: “We are just students trying to become lawyers, doctors, congressmen like yourself and one day president, so we can make a change to not just the state of South Carolina but also the world. We are not quitters.”
In some ways, Republicans found themselves in the same position as Democrats who were reluctant to criticize President Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and in the run-up to the Iraq war.
They tried to strike a balance, with House Minority Leader John A. Boehner praising the president’s leadership but saying it’s Democrats who are failing to live up to Mr. Obama’s standards of bipartisanship.
“Republicans want to be partners with the president in finding responsible solutions to the challenges facing our nation, but thus far congressional leaders in the president’s own party have stood in the way,” said Mr. Boehner, Ohio Republican.
As high as Mr. Obama’s rhetoric was, his approval ratings have tumbled somewhat from the dizzying heights he had attained at his inauguration.
Gallup’s tracking poll showed his popularity at 59 percent this week, down 10 percentage points from late January, as self-identified Republicans have lost their enthusiasm for the president.