WASHINGTON -- In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Barack Obama confronted Congress for letting more than a million workers miss out on unemployment insurance last month.
After saying the benefits system should be reformed to be more effective in today's economy, Obama spoke directly to lawmakers: "This Congress needs to restore the unemployment insurance you just let expire for 1.6 million people."
The president then told the story of Misty DeMars, a mother of two from Oak Park, Ill., who had been steadily employed until last year. The White House announced Tuesday afternoon that DeMars had been invited to watch the speech from the first lady's box.
"In May, she and her husband used their life savings to buy their first home," Obama said of DeMars. "A week later, budget cuts claimed the job she loved."
And then last month DeMars was among the 1.3 million people whose benefits ended abruptly when long-term unemployment insurance expired. Each week since then another 70,000 jobless workers have reached the end of state benefits, which typically last six months, without becoming eligible for the federal benefits that millions have received since 2008.
Democrats have pushed to reauthorize the federal compensation, which Congress routinely provides in times of high unemployment, but Republicans have been hesitant, citing cost. Unable to force a vote in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, Democrats have been telling individual workers' stories to create political pressure.
Obama read from a letter he said he'd received from DeMars: "'We are the face of the unemployment crisis,' she wrote. 'I am not dependent on the government ... Our country depends on people like us who build careers, contribute to society ... care about our neighbors ... I am confident that in time I will find a job ... I will pay my taxes, and we will raise our children in their own home in the community we love. Please give us this chance.'"
"Congress, give these hardworking, responsible Americans that chance," Obama said.
He then announced that he's invited CEOs to join him at the White House this week to make a commitment to hire from among America's nearly 4 million long-term unemployed, following through on a pledge he made last summer. One of the barriers to getting the long-term jobless back to work has been employers' unwillingness to hire people with long gaps in their resumes.
"Tonight, I ask every business leader in America to join us and to do the same -- because we are stronger when America fields a full team," Obama said.
Several Democrats attending the speech wore blue ribbons to signal their support for reauthorizing the long-term benefits.