President Barack Obama on Wednesday night risked incurring the electoral wrath of America’s socially conservative heartlands by announcing that he now favours legalising gay marriage across the US.
Speaking hours after North Carolina became the 30th state in the country to explicitly outlaw same-sex marriage, Mr Obama told a specially-convened interview that “personally” he supported them.
“It is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” he told ABC News. His wife, Michelle, “feels the same way that I do,” he added.
Mr Obama said his view had been affected by the realisation that his daughters, Sasha and Malia, would be bemused at the notion that the same-sex parents of friends “would be treated differently”.
“It doesn’t make sense to them,” he said. “Frankly, that’s the kind of thing that prompts a change in perspective.” He also cited the sacrifices of gay troops and said he had White House staff who were “incredibly committed” to their gay partners.
The announcement settled what the President had described as an “evolving” position on one of the most divisive issues in American society. Previously he supported only legal civil unions for homosexuals
It came three days after Vice President Joe Biden said he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriages, sending the White House scrambling to maintain their delicately balanced stance.
Mr Obama is powerless to give gay people the right to wed, which is controlled by the individual states. However, his announcement sets up a sharp dividing line with Mitt Romney, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, who favours amending the US constitution to outlaw gay marriage forever.
Despite not endorsing gay marriage since arriving on the national political stage, Mr Obama was assumed to back it privately. In a 1996 questionnaire he said: “I favour legalising same-sex marriages”.
However, amid public opposition to legalisation as his political career progressed, Mr Obama repeatedly declared on the record that he opposed it, stating in 2004: “Gay marriage is not a civil right”.
As he ran for president in 2008 he said that as a Christian he viewed marriage as a “sacred union” between “a man and a woman”. He even acknowledged in his second book, ‘The Audacity of Hope’, that “in years hence I may be seen as someone who was on the wrong side of history” on the subject.
However, polls last year indicated for the first time that a majority of Americans favoured legalisation. Six states and Washington, DC, now allow gay marriage.
In an apparent statement of intent, Mr Obama last year ordered his justice department to halt prosecutions under the Defence of Marriage Act, which allows states to decline to recognise gay marriages that were performed in other states.
None the less, it was assumed that he would not risk jeopardising his re-election prospects by publicly endorsing something fiercely opposed by millions of Americans before November’s election.
Some 30 states have amended their constitutions to outlaw gay marriage, including the potentially crucial battleground states of Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin. They were joined on Tuesday by North Carolina, where voters called for a ban by 61 per cent to 39.
However Mr Obama’s position had become practically unsustainable after Mr Biden’s weekend intervention. Aides are thought to have concluded that his reputation for honesty was becoming damaged by the political tightrope-walk.
Meanwhile wealthy gay donors, infuriated by the President’s timidity, were threatening to withhold millions of dollars in donations.
Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City and a high-profile advocate of gay rights, called the President's announcement "a major turning point in the history of American civil rights".
The Human Rights Campaign pressure group said last night that Mr Obama had extended “a message of hope to a generation of young lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans”.
“Without a doubt, President Obama's statement will inspire thousands more conversations around kitchen tables and in church pews,” a spokesman said. “We are confident that our nation will continue to move inexorably toward equality and we thank the President for leading us in that direction.”