Their messenger Monday night was Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a red-state Democrat touted by congressional leaders as a symbol of bipartisanship.
"In this time, normally reserved for the partisan response, I hope to offer you something more: an American response," Sebelius said in excerpts released ahead of her speech from the governor's mansion in Topeka.
"There is a chance, Mr. President, in the next 357 days, to get real results and give the American people renewed optimism that their challenges are the top priority," Sebelius said.
Her remarks followed criticism last week by Democratic congressional leaders that was plenty partisan. They demanded that Bush accomplish a string of Democratic objectives that he was unlikely to consider in the last year of his administration.
But the Democratic remarks framed by the president's annual speech were aimed more at drawing distinctions than creating consensus in an election year with the presidency and their majorities at stake.
On what policies exactly Sebelius was suggesting cooperation wasn't clear. She made reference to the short-term stimulus package House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Bush announced last week, suggesting that "a temporary fix is only the first step toward meeting our challenges and solving our problems." The package of tax cuts still must be approved by the Senate.
"If more Republicans in Congress stand with us this year, we won't have to wait for a new president to restore America's role in the world and fight a more effective war on terror," Sebelius said.
CBS News chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer reports that Democrats were very skeptical of Mr. Bush's speech.
"We talked to Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, today and we said the president is planning to challenge you on immigration and she said 'poor baby.' That was a direct quote," Schieffer said. "She said 'look, it's his own party that abandoned him on immigration, we can't help.'"
Other Democrats were celebrating one thing they agree on: the end of Bush's presidency.
"Tonight is a red-letter night in American history. It is the last time George Bush will give the State of the Union. Next year it will be a Democratic president giving it," predicted Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., drawing cheers during a campaign stop in Connecticut before attending Bush's speech.
Just who that would be, however, remained unclear. Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., locked in battle for their party's presidential nomination, would be two faces in a crowd of hundreds of lawmakers, members of Bush's cabinet and the Supreme Court .
Clinton and Obama would arrive in the Capitol in the wake of a major endorsement of Obama that put icons of the Democratic Party on opposite sides of the nomination fight. Earlier in the day, Obama received the endorsement of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy, brother and daughter, respectively, of President John F. Kennedy. They were joined by Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., who is the senator's son.
On the Republican side, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., skipped the speech to campaign in Florida.
Presidential historian and CBS News analyst Douglas Brinkley said Sebelius, who focused on unity and bipartisanship, was borrowing a page from Barack Obama - whom she is expected to endorse.
"It is another boon today for Barack Obama," Brinkley said.
Sebelius' conciliatory words stood in contrast to those used Friday by Democratic leaders. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., challenged Bush to renounce a harsh interrogation technique called waterboarding, close Guantanamo Bay to detainees and start talking to such countries as Iran, with whom Bush has refused to negotiate.
Pelosi, meanwhile, stuck to domestic issues and stayed largely away from the tangle of Iraq, a reflection of the trouble Democrats have had in trying to force Bush to start withdrawing troops.
In the hours leading up to the joint session of Congress, Reid popped the bubble of bipartisanship even as he introduced Sebelius to reporters during a conference call. Discussing legislation to renew Bush's secretive domestic surveillance program, Reid suggested that Bush was trying to scare the nation into supporting permissive rules on domestic eavesdropping.
"The only thing the president does well is frighten the American people," he said.