WASHINGTON -- Equivocal no longer, President Barack Obama declared his support for gay marriage yesterday in a historic announcement that instantly gave the polarizing social issue a more prominent role in the 2012 race for the White House.
The announcement was the first by a sitting president, and Republican challenger Mitt Romney swiftly disagreed with it. "I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman," he said while campaigning in Oklahoma.
Gay rights advocates cheered Obama's declaration, which they had long urged him to make. Beyond the words, one man who married his gay partner in Washington, D.C., was stirred to send a $25 contribution to the president's campaign. "Making a contribution is the best way to say thank you," Stuart Kopperman said.
Obama announced his shift -- he once opposed gay marriage but more recently has said his views were "evolving" -- in an interview with ABC in which he cited a blend of the personal and the presidential.
He said "it wouldn't dawn" on his daughters, Sasha and Malia, that some of their friends' parents would be treated differently from others, and added that he had thought of aides "who are in incredibly committed monogamous same-sex relationships who are raising kids together."
He said he also thought about "those soldiers or airmen or Marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf, and yet feel constrained, even though now that 'don't ask, don't tell' is gone, because they're not able to commit themselves in a marriage."
The president said he was taking a personal position, and aides said he continues to believe that marriage is an issue best decided by states.
He spoke on the heels of a pair of events that underscored the sensitivity of an issue that has long divided the nation.
Vice President Joe Biden said Sunday that he is completely comfortable with gay people marrying, a pronouncement that instantly raised the profile of the issue. White House aides said the vice president hadn't said anything particularly newsworthy, but gay rights groups cited Biden's comments in urging the president to announce his support.
On Tuesday, voters in North Carolina, a potential battleground in the fall election, approved an amendment to the state constitution affirming that marriage may be only a union of a man and a woman.
Senior administration officials said Obama came to the conclusion that gay couples should have the right to legally marry earlier this year and had planned to make his views known publicly before the Democratic National Convention in early September.
They conceded that Biden's comments accelerated the timeline, although they added the vice president's remarks were impromptu and not part of a coordinated effort to soften the ground for a shift by the president.
As recently as eight years ago, conservatives in several states maneuvered successfully to place questions relating to gay marriage on the Election Day ballot as a way of boosting turnout for President George W. Bush's re-election.
Now, nationwide polling suggests increasing acceptance of gay marriage. In a national survey released this month, Gallup reported 50 percent of those polled said it should be legal, and 48 percent were opposed.