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Originally published May 9, 2012 at 9:38 PM | Page modified May 10, 2012 at 1:49 PM

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Obama's bold, risky shift backing gay marriage

President Obama's decision to endorse same-sex marriage Wednesday staked out a stance that carries uncertain political risks but one he...

Tribune Washington bureau

Reaction about Obama's support for same-sex marriage

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WASHINGTON — President Obama's decision to endorse same-sex marriage Wednesday staked out a stance that carries uncertain political risks but one he said was rooted in the biblical admonition "to treat others the way you would want to be treated."

Obama's endorsement, a milestone for the gay-rights movement, was the first from a sitting president and a potentially powerful tail wind for a cause still struggling for electoral approval. It comes as the country remains divided over whether same-sex marriages should have the same recognition and legal standing as traditional ones, and six months before an election expected to be so tight that it may hinge on small slices of votes in a handful of states.

Obama equivocated for more than a year, saying his position was "evolving." More recently, he came under considerable pressure — from his somewhat deflated base and a powerful network of gay donors — to speak his mind before November. His announcement was hastened by a similar declaration from Vice President Joseph Biden on Sunday, which prompted calls for Obama to speak out.

"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," Obama told ABC News' Robin Roberts in an interview hastily arranged to quiet fallout from Biden's remarks.

Obama said he arrived at the decision by talking to gay friends, staff members, his two daughters and his wife, who he said shared his support. His Christian faith and the golden rule factored in. "In the end," he said, "the values that I care most deeply about and she cares most deeply about is how we treat other people."

Obama had cited religion in opposing same-sex marriages as he campaigned for president, but in December 2010 declared his position was evolving. That position was viewed widely as a wink and a nod to gay-rights supporters who believed the president was withholding a public declaration of support out of concerns about alienating key voters.

Nationally, a slim majority of voters favors gay marriage, according to most polls — an increasing majority because of shifting attitudes among young people and middle-class voters. Still, religious, black, Latino and older voters are more likely to express opposition, and 38 states have adopted various prohibitions of same-sex marriage, according the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Some Democrats contend that voters most strongly opposed are unlikely to vote for Obama anyway, but the announcement is likely to hurt him in the South, where one in every three swing voters strongly opposes gay marriage, a recent Pew Research Center poll found. North Carolina, which Obama narrowly won in 2008, approved one of the strongest bans on same-sex unions Tuesday.

More crucial to his re-election chances will be the effect in Virginia, where a recent survey showed him with a seven-point lead over Mitt Romney. Polls show the electorate nearly evenly divided on gay marriage.

White House aides believe there's no way to predict the "crosscurrents," said a senior administration official who, like others, requested anonymity. But Obama's decision is unleashing a wave of financial support from gay and lesbian donors.

Andrew Tobias, treasurer of the Democratic National Committee and a top fundraising bundler for Obama, said one donor pledged $10,000 and decided to fly with his partner from Los Angeles to attend an Obama fundraiser in New York on Monday.

The president's campaign was quick to capitalize on his decision, soliciting donations in an email to supporters.

Romney, meanwhile, emphasized his consistency on the issue in response to Obama's changed position.

"I have the same view that I've had since running for office," he said in reaction to the president's statement. Romney was a staunch advocate of gay rights while running for governor of Massachusetts in 2002, but he never endorsed same-sex marriage and later became an outspoken leader of the drive to ban the practice after a state court legalized it.

"My view is that marriage itself is a relationship between a man and a woman, and that's my own preference," the presumptive Republican nominee said Wednesday. "I know other people have differing views. This is a very tender and sensitive topic, as are many social issues."

For months, Obama's advisers gave no indication that he planned to reveal a new stance before November, believing his record on other gay-rights issues would suffice to win over an increasingly powerful network of gay donors and other ardent supporters. Obama ended the "don't ask, don't tell" policy barring gay soldiers from serving openly and dropped the legal defense of the Defense of Marriage Act.

But advisers say the president decided weeks ago that he had changed his mind and wanted to make an announcement before the Democratic National Convention in September.

Michelle Obama was a strong influence, administration officials said. She often invited gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender couples to events she sponsored for military families.

Obama's announcement was celebrated by gay-rights activists and Democratic allies.

"The president's words will no doubt inspire thousands more conversations around kitchen tables and in church pews," Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese said. "We are confident that our nation will continue to move inexorably toward equality."

Obama's new position is also a marker in his party's evolution and solidifies, for now, a clear partisan divide on gay rights. For more than a decade, leading Republicans and Democrats had opposed same-sex marriage. Obama has taken multiple stances. In 1996, as a candidate for the state Senate in Illinois, he told a gay-rights group that he favored same-sex marriages and would fight efforts to block them. As a U.S. Senate candidate in 2004, he said he believed marriage is between a man and a woman, citing his faith.

In 2008, he repeated that assertion to influential evangelical pastor Rick Warren. But Obama also said he would not support an amendment to put that definition in the Constitution.

Defining marriage "has been a matter of state law. That has been our tradition," he said. At the same time, Obama opposed a California ballot initiative outlawing same-sex marriage because it was "divisive and discriminatory."

Obama had plenty of company in such murky waters. Since then, however, Obama's party has moved steadily toward support for gay marriage.

Los Angeles Times staff writer Michael Finnegan and Tribune Washington bureau writers Matea Gold, Michael A. Memoli, Joseph Tanfani and Paul West contributed to this report.

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