President Barack Obama on Wednesday became the first president to endorse same-sex marriage, ensuring that the polarizing issue will be part of the 2012 election debate.
"It is important for me personally to go ahead and affirm that same-sex couples should be able to get married," Obama said.
His comments to ABC News came three days after Vice President Joe Biden declared himself "absolutely comfortable" and left White House and campaign officials struggling to explain the president's previous position that his views on the subject were "evolving."
On Wednesday, Obama was unequivocal and cited his daughters to explain his position in personal terms. They have friends whose parents are same-sex partners.
"Malia and Sasha, it wouldn't dawn on them that somehow their friends' parents would be treated different," Obama said in the interview at the White House. "It doesn't make sense to them, and frankly, that's the kind of thing that prompts a change in perspective."
The president said he sought to balance respect for people's religious beliefs and the need to treat people equally. He said he is not advocating a national law on same-sex marriage and supports letting states decide whether to allow it.
"I have hesitated on gay marriage in part because I thought that civil unions would be sufficient. I was sensitive to the fact that for a lot of people the word 'marriage' was something that invokes very powerful traditions, religious beliefs and so forth," he said.
Obama said his wife, Michelle, also helped him come to a conclusion on gay marriage:
"We are both practicing Christians, and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others, but, you know, when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it's also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated," he said.
"I think that's what we try to impart to our kids, and that's what motivates me as president."
Throughout his national political career Obama had opposed gay marriage. As an Illinois state senate candidate, he indicated support for gay marriage in a questionnaire, but aides later disavowed it.
His new stance drew cheers from gay rights advocates.
"This is an historic day. In taking a stand in support of marriage equality, the president is in step with the growing majority of people across the country that supports equality and fairness under the law," said Nadine Smith, president of Equality Florida. "He, along with millions of Americans, has come to understand that gay couples want to marry because they love each other and because marriage provides the best legal means of taking care of each other and our children. The day is coming when anti-gay marriage laws will meet the same fate as laws banning interracial marriage."
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent, said, "No American president has ever supported a major expansion of civil rights that has not ultimately been adopted by the American people, and I have no doubt that this will be no exception."
Opposition to gay marriage is steadily declining, but polls show the electorate still evenly divided. A Gallup poll released this week found 50 percent of all adults in favor of legal recognition of same-sex marriages, including 65 percent of Democrats, 57 percent of independents, and 22 percent of Republicans.
The president already has strong support from gay rights activists, with the Washington Post estimating that at least one in six of his top fundraisers is gay.
While some analysts predict Obama's reversal on same-sex marriage could damage him among religious African-American, Hispanic and independent voters, it also could help him energize younger voters who tend to be more comfortable with gay rights than older voters.
Politically, the greater risk was to continue equivocating and look like a double-talking politician. Since Biden's comments Sunday, followed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan Monday voicing support for same-sex marriage, the president's messages this week have been drowned out by questions about his position on same-sex marriage.
"The economy is issues one through 129, and everything else is pretty secondary," said Peter Brown, of the Quinnipiac Polling Institute. "Just as the Democratic attacks on Romney and Republicans on women's reproductive rights have received headlines, this will receive headlines but in the end seems unlikely to change many votes."
While public opinion is moving in favor of same-sex marriage, state ballot initiatives to ban it consistently pass, most recently on Tuesday in North Carolina. Voters in more than 30 states have passed ballot initiatives banning same-sex marriage, including Florida where 62 percent of voters passed a Constitutional Amendment in 2008.
"President Obama has now made the definition of marriage a defining issue in the presidential contest, especially in swing states like Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida and Nevada," said Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage. "God is the author of marriage, and we will not let an activist politician like Barack Obama who is beholden to gay marriage activists for campaign financing to turn marriage into something political that can be redefined according to presidential whim."
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has not stressed the issue of same-sex marriage and recently faced controversy when an openly gay campaign official resigned amid criticism from some social conservative activists.
"I do not favor marriage between people of the same gender, and I do not favor civil unions if they are identical to marriage other than by name," Romney told a Denver TV station Wednesday. "My view is the domestic partnership benefits, hospital visitation rights, and the like are appropriate but that the others are not."
If Obama's position on same-sex marriage puts him out of step with half the population, he is on the right side of public opinion trends.
A March Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found 49 percent of Americans favor gay marriage and 40 percent oppose it. In 2009, the same poll found 49 percent opposed and 41 percent in favor. In 2004 62 percent opposed same-sex marriage and 30 percent favored it.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]