President Obama on Wednesday ended nearly two years of “evolving” on the issue of same-sex marriage by publicly endorsing it in a television interview, taking a definitive stand on one of the most contentious and politically charged social issues of the day.
“At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” Mr. Obama told ABC News in an interview that came after the president faced mounting pressure to clarify his position.
Mr. Obama said his views had changed over the years, in part because of prodding from friends who are gay and conversations with his wife and daughters.
“I had hesitated on gay marriage in part because I thought that civil unions would be sufficient,” Mr. Obama said. “I was sensitive to the fact that for a lot of people, the word marriage was something that invokes very powerful traditions and religious beliefs.”
But he added that “I’ve always been adamant that gay and lesbian Americans should be treated fairly and equally.”
The president stressed the tension he felt between the desire to treat people equally and respect for those whose religious beliefs lead them to oppose same-sex marriage.
“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. “And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids and that’s what motivates me as president.”
In an election that is all but certain to turn on the slowly recovering economy and its persistently high jobless rate, Mr. Obama’s stand injects a volatile social issue into the campaign debate and puts him at even sharper odds with his presumptive Republican rival, Mitt Romney, who opposes same-sex marriage and favors an amendment to the United States Constitution to forbid it.
Mr. Romney, after a campaign speech in Oklahoma City on Wednesday, underplayed his differences on the issue with Mr. Obama, while also offering a reminder that he had been consistent.
“This is a very tender and sensitive topic,” Mr. Romney said, “as are many social issues. But I have the same view I’ve had since, well, since running for office.”
Mr. Romney, who has long fended off accusations of shifting his views on social topics for political expediency, suggested that Mr. Obama might now be open to the charge of flip-flopping.
“He previously said he opposed same-sex marriage,” Mr. Romney said when asked whether the president’s “evolution” on the subject meant he was inconsistent. “You’ll be able to make that determination on your own.”
Public support for same-sex marriage is growing at a pace that surprises even professional pollsters as older generations of voters who tend to be strongly opposed are supplanted by younger ones who are just as strongly in favor. Same-sex couples are featured in some of the most popular shows on television, without controversy.
Yet time after time, when the issue is put to voters in states, they have chosen to ban unions between people of the same gender or to defeat measures that would legalize same-sex unions. Just Tuesday, North Carolinians voted overwhelmingly to add a ban to their state constitution, and Republican leaders in the Colorado House blocked a vote on legislation to allow civil unions; North Carolina and Colorado are considered swing states in presidential politics.
Nationwide, according to the pollster Andrew Kohut of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, a plurality of swing voters favors same-sex marriage, 47 percent to 39 percent, and outside the South the margin widens to a majority of 53 percent in favor and 35 percent opposed; in the South, a plurality of 48 percent opposes same-sex marriage. Swing voters generally do not have strong opinions on the subject, Mr. Kohut said, though in the South 30 percent of swing voters say they are strongly opposed.
Supporters of same-sex marriage were quick to praise the president’s decision to speak out.