WASHINGTON – While early analysis suggests President Bush delivered a flat State of the Union address Tuesday night that received only muted response, several lines in the 52-minute speech won the president enthusiastic applause.
Bush is facing near-record low approval ratings. ABC News reported that its latest poll has Bush's support at 33 percent, the lowest number for a president at the time of a State of the Union address since Richard Nixon in 1974.
Still, FOX News transcribers recorded 54 applause breaks, although not all those pauses were the result of bipartisan cheering for the president. That compares to 76 in 2002 and and 77 in 2003, though both of those speeches were longer.
The president's first round of cheers came at the very top of Bush's speech, when he acknowledged the never-before-seen moment taking place — the first time a president was being introduced by a female speaker of the House.
• Photo Essay: State of the Union Address
"Tonight, I have a high privilege and distinct honor of my own — as the first president to begin the State of the Union message with these words: Madame Speaker," Bush said to a wave of Democratic enthusiasm. Speaker Nancy Pelosi stood to shake the president's hand, beaming with deserved pride for her footnote in history.
Standing ovations were in wide supply for featured guests in first lady Laura Bush's gallery box. Among those mentioned by the president were Houston Rockets star Dikembe Mutombo, Baby Einstein founder Julie Aigner-Clark, Sgt. Tommy Rieman and New York construction worker Wesley Autrey, who earned fame earlier this month for jumping onto the tracks to save a man who had fallen in a New York City subway station. Autrey made the most of the recognition by winking, extending victory signs and blowing kisses at members of the audience. One of his young daughters slept in her chair beside him.
For the most part, Pelosi offered cues to members on her side of the aisle about agreeable issues, primarily expanding health insurance and providing needy students with the help they need. That applause, however, was limited to generic statements and not specific proposals like extending vouchers to public school students to attend private institutions or giving health care tax deductions.
Bush received applause when he pledged that the United States would not desert U.S. troops. He also won sustained recognition for some unlikely statements, including expressing his hope that the sharply split Congress can come together to confront difficult issues.
Bush waited for 10 seconds to speak again once he told lawmakers: "Our citizens don't much care which side of the aisle we sit on as long as we are willing to cross that aisle when there is work to be done."
Republicans, as expected, were happy to applaud the president's economic report — 7.2 million new jobs over 41 months of growth. The entire chamber stood when Bush called on balancing the budget.
He even won a rare laugh before encouraging Congress to do away with earmarks, the pet projects that lawmakers add to spending outside of the regular budget process.
"These special interest items are often slipped into bills at the last hour - when not even C-SPAN is watching," Bush said referencing the television network that broadcasts all House and Senate sessions.
Several Republican members were left stewing in their seats, however, when all the Democrats and many Republicans stood for Bush's call for a temporary worker program, a key element of his immigration reform proposals that conservatives say amounts to amnesty for illegals.
The president earned one extra loud show of support from freshman Democratic Rep. John Hall, the former "Orleans" rocker who gained support by preaching his environmentally-oriented platform at outdoor concerts in New York last summer. Hall jumped to his feet when he heard Bush speak about reducing greenhouse gas-causing pollution.
"America is on the verge of technological breakthroughs that will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change," Bush said.
Hall clapped until others followed suit. He told FOX News afterward that it was the first time he recalls hearing the president use the words "global climate change," a phrase that Bush advisers say he first used in 2001.
"He denied the existence of global warming," Hall said. "This is the first time I remember hearing him say the words publicly. That’s a turnaround on his part and I was applauding it."
But some lawmakers were notably silent when the president otherwise earned enthusiastic applause. On Iraq, Bush pleaded with members to support finishing the battle.
"On this day, at this hour, it is still within our power to shape the outcome of this battle. So let us find our resolve, and turn events toward victory," he said.
Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., said he listened very intently to the speech to take note when applause came and suggested the seriousness of the issue made it unsuitable for applause.
"I always mark the text for applause and standing ovations. He didn't overemphasize Iraq. He spoke quite a long time without many applause lines to convey the reality of the world situation and the challenges we face," Bartlett said.
Many present in the chamber stood to applaud that line, although Republicans were quicker and more enthusiastic than Democrats. Notable for their responses were two 2008 Democratic presidential candidates who sat right near each other. Sen. Hillary Clinton stood and applauded along with the Democratic leadership. Illinois Sen. Barack Obama neither stood nor applauded.
The difference in response could be a gauge for voters comparing Obama's and Clinton's views on the war in Iraq. Clinton, who voted for authorizing the war in October 2002, has since said the war was a mistake. Just back from a trip to Iraq, she said she wants more internationalization of the problem and more responsibility from the Iraqi government even though she supports continuing the wider War on Terror.
Obama, on the other hand, was not in the Senate at the time of the authorization vote and has said he would have voted against it. He is pushing for withdrawal as quickly as possible.
"Most Americans believe that escalation will not bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end, and that's why I've proposed not just a troop cap, but a phased redeployment that will start bringing our troops home," he said in a response to the president's speech.
Outside of the speech itself, many members of both parties tried to schmooze with Bush as he rolled down the aisle with his Cabinet and congressional escorts. Lawmakers across the spectrum — from Ohio Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich, also a 2008 presidential contender, to House Minority Whip Roy Blunt — reached out to shake the president's hand or drop a few words into his ear. On the way out, the president was accosted by lawmakers seeking an autograph on copies of his speech.
Up in the balcony, actor Michael J. Fox, who campaigned for Democrats last year on the issue of stem cell research and is credited in part for tipping the scale in at least one race, was a guest of Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I. Despite his political leanings, Fox, who sat in the gallery behind the first lady's box, stood and applauded when Laura Bush arrived at her seat. Not clapping for the first lady was Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who did applaud the president's arrival.
FOX News' Brian Wilson and Molly Hooper contributed to this report.