President Obama on Wednesday endorsed gay marriage, becoming the first U.S. president to voice support for same-sex couples to wed legally.
After years of “evolving” on the issue, Obama said he had concluded “personally” that same-sex couples should be able to get married.
He said he reached the conclusion after years of conversations with friends, family and neighbors, as well as with members of his staff who are in same-sex relationships.
ABC released excerpts of Obama’s remarks and said the president emphasized he still supports states deciding the issue on their own.
The announcement is a landmark for the gay-rights movement, which has battled for decades to win legal recognition for same-sex marriages.
But the sudden shift by Obama in an election year on the explosive issue could pose a risk to the campaign by alienating socially conservative independent voters who do not support same-sex marriage.
Obama’s views offer a stark contrast with those of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, his likely opponent in the presidential election. In an interview with a local television station, Romney said he didn’t support the practice.
“Well, when these issues were raised in my state of Massachusetts, I indicated my view, which is 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 KDVR-TV. “My view is the domestic-partnership benefits, hospital visitation rights and the like are appropriate but that the others are not.”
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said his party supports “maintaining marriage between one man and one woman and would oppose any attempts to change that.”
Obama’s public statement follows Vice President Biden’s unexpected declaration on Sunday that he is “absolutely comfortable” with gay marriage. Education Secretary Arne Duncan jumped in a day later, saying he likewise supports gay marriage.
The president’s acknowledgment comes on the heels of an overwhelming vote in swing-state North Carolina defining marriage as legal only between a man and a woman, and comes just days after Obama held his first official campaign rallies.
Senior administration officials say Obama had planned to make an announcement before the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte in September. They said Obama has no plans to push for federal legislation on gay marriage and that his support won’t be the launch of a big campaign push.
In the interview on Wednesday, Obama explained how he reached his conclusion on the controversial topic.
“I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors — when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together,” he said.
He also mentioned “soldiers or airmen or Marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage.”
Calling it a “generational” concept, Obama said his daughters take for granted that gay couples should be treated the same as straight couples.
“You know, Malia and Sasha, they have friends whose parents are same-sex couples. There have been times when Michelle and I have been sitting around the dinner table and were talking about their friends and their parents, and Malia and Sasha, it wouldn’t dawn on them that somehow their friends’ parents would be treated differently,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to them, and frankly that’s the kind of thing that prompts a change in perspective.”
Obama acknowledged the shift could hurt him politically, saying it could “put us at odds with the views of others.” But he cited his religion as another reason for his decision.
“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,” Obama said. “And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids and that’s what motivates me as president and I figure the most consistent I can be in being true to those precepts, the better I’ll be as a dad and a husband and hopefully the better I’ll be as president.”
Obama’s position on gay marriage has had its share of twists and turns.
In 1996, he checked a box on a questionnaire to state Senate candidates in Illinois that indicated he favored “legalizing same-sex marriages,” and that he would “fight efforts” to prohibit them.
In the past, Obama’s nuanced, carefully choreographed position that his views are “evolving” angered some gay-rights activists and donors, but groups supporting gay rights were quick to praise Obama’s remarks on Wednesday.
“Today President Obama made history by boldly stating that gay and lesbian Americans should be fully and equally part of the fabric of American society and that our families deserve nothing less than the equal respect and recognition that comes through marriage,” said Joe Solmonese, the president of the Human Rights Campaign.
A former senior White House aide said that when it came to Obama openly acknowledging his support for gay marriage, “it’s always been a question of when, and not if.”
The Biden comments — what the former aide likened to a “holy s--t moment” — forced the hand of the president. “It puts him in a position that he didn’t want to be in,” the former aide said. “The White House has been so incredibly nuanced on this issue. They’ve really been walking the line and had tremendous message discipline. But Biden’s comments blew that up.
“The timing on this isn’t exactly ideal,” the former White House official added.
The former official said Obama’s admission is risky because it runs the risk of further inflaming social conservatives.
“Up until now, the gay community was satisfied with what our message had been,” said the aide, who questioned whether the shift would dramatically increase support.
Earlier this week, the White House and the Obama campaign sought to contain pressure on Obama to change his stance. Instead, the White House touted Obama’s support for the gay community, saying that Obama has “a record he’s very proud of” on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues.
— Updated at 8:45 p.m.