After Obama slowly walked down the center aisle, he made a special effort to talk to Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who only returned to Washington last month after suffering a massive stroke. Their handshake looked a bit like a fist bump.
The tradition of the president's address to the joint session of Congress packs the House chamber, with many lawmakers rising in unison to cheer and applaud on some issues, like Obama's call for immigration reform, or sitting silently in opposition. The six Supreme Court justices in attendance along with the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff neither applauded nor stood, their way of showing nonpartisanship in Washington.
Obama's call for congressional action on gun control legislation prompted the most boisterous response, with loud chants of "vote, vote."
In the galleries, an American lineup of guests listened intently, from rocker Ted Nugent to crooner Tony Bennett.
Kirk sat with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and joining the two was freshman Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who lost both legs and use of her arm during the Iraq war. Congress' two tax writers, Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., also sat side by side, as did Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who is stepping down after four years as CIA director and Pentagon chief, got a hug from McCain when he entered the chamber.
Several lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, wore green lapel ribbons to remember the victims of the deadly shooting last year at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Like college basketball fans camping out overnight for tickets to the game, lawmakers arrived hours before the speech to secure seats on the aisle that would give them a chance to greet the president — and be seen on television during the slow walk into the House chamber. Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., got a prime aisle seat.
Among those in attendance was Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the Washington Archdiocese. His presence was a reminder of an upcoming vote of major significance — for the next pope.