US President Barack Obama's Republican foes listened mostly stone-faced to what they hoped would be his last State of the Union speech, and then raced for the exits while he was still shaking hands.
Many Democrats didn't stick around either on Tuesday evening, and the House of Representatives was mostly and unusually empty by the time he was done receiving praise from cabinet members seated near the front of the chamber and began moving up the thin ranks of well-wishers flanking its main aisle.
The speech got off to an inauspicious start when the sergeant-at-arms tasked with announcing Obama's arrival did so apparently unaided by a microphone, his shout all but drowned out in the steady pre-speech buzz of chatting lawmakers.
And even before the embattled Democratic president had spoken a word, reporters' email in-boxes overflowed with canned statements responding to the prime-time address with praise or scorn.
One of those commenting hours before Obama stood before the lawmakers in a time-honored political ritual insisted that he had listened to the speech with "an open mind."
There were flickers of bipartisan truce: The chamber erupted in applause and shone with affectionate smiles as Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords slowly walked onto the floor to join her colleagues.
Giffords who plans to step down this week to focus on her recovery from an assassination attempt last year in which she was shot in the head got a standing ovation from the crowd and a bear hug from Obama.
Lawmakers from both parties also applauded First Lady Michelle Obama, US troops, the death of Osama bin Laden, US workers, putting the unemployed back to work, equal pay for women, keeping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, ties to Israel, and banning insider trading by members of Congress.
And they united in a mild chorus of stifled laughter mixed with groans when Obama attempted the sole joke of his 7,000-word speech, a comment about rolling back a four-decade rule requiring farmers to spend $10,000 to prove that they could contain a milk spill.
"With a rule like that, I guess it was worth crying over spilled milk," quipped Obama.
Republicans twice roared their approval, once when Obama quoted Republican president Abraham Lincoln's call for limited government, another when he called for an "all-of-the-above" approach to energy.
Obama often reached far beyond his immediate audience to court voters and engage the Republican presidential candidates who have spent months hammering his administration on the campaign trail.
Former Massachusetts governor and multi-millionaire Mitt Romney has denounced the president's call for higher taxes on the richest Americans as "class warfare" fed by "envy" and enmity to "free enterprise."
Obama said "you can call this class warfare all you want. But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense."
"We don't begrudge financial success in this country. We admire it. When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it's not because they envy the rich," he added.
Romney has also accused Obama of crippling the US military and putting the United States on a course for national decline.
"America is back," Obama shot back. "Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn't know what they're talking about."
"America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs, and as long as I'm president, I intend to keep it that way," he said. -AFP