WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama has for the first time stated publicly that he supports same-sex marriage.
Three days after Vice President Joe Biden said he is "absolutely comfortable" with two men or two women getting married, Obama told ABC News in a hastily arranged interview that "same sex couple should be able to get married."
He is the first sitting president to take that position.
The announcement comes as he faced mounting pressure to express support for same-sex marriage after a setback for gay-rights advocates in North Carolina.
In the interview with ABC News' Robin Roberts, Obama said, "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."
Republicans in North Carolina had turned out in force Tuesday night to vote to strengthen the state's gay marriage ban. The passage of the state constitutional amendment proves that the topic remains a powerful election-year wedge issue despite tough economic times. It also illustrates the risks for the president to take a definitive stance on the issue.
The president has previously said his position on the matter is "evolving."
"You know when I go to college campuses, sometimes I talk to college Republicans who think that I have terrible policies on the economy, on foreign policy, but are very clear that when it comes to same sex equality or, you know, believe in equality. They are much more comfortable with it. You know, Malia and Sasha, they have friends whose parents are same-sex couples. There have been times where Michelle and I have been sitting around the dinner table and we're 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. It doesn't make sense to them and frankly, that's the kind of thing that prompts a change in perspective," he said.
In 1996, as a candidate for the state Senate in Illinois, Obama offered "unequivocal" support for same-sex marriage but later changed his position.
As a candidate for president in 2008, Mr. Obama said he supports civil unions, but declined to back same-sex marriage.
When he signed the legislation repealing the Pentagon's 1993 law prohibiting openly gay members of the military, Mr. Obama was asked about his opposition to same-sex marriage and said his "feelings about this are constantly evolving."
"I struggle with this. I have friends, I have people who work for me who are in powerful, strong, long-lasting gay or lesbian unions. And they are extraordinary people. And this is something that means a lot to them and they care deeply about," he said about a year and a half ago.
Pressure again mounted on Obama to explain his position after Biden and Education Secretary Arne Duncan essentially backed same-sex marriage this week.
Biden told NBC Sunday that "I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties."
Duncan told MSNBC Monday he believes same-sex couples should be allowed to get married. Asked why he had never said so publicly before, he said "I don't know if I've ever been asked."
The issue complicates Obama's re-election efforts. Many conservative Democrats in key swing states like North Carolina and Ohio are opposed to same-sex marriage. Voters in North Carolina on Tuesday overwhelmingly passed a measure to add an amendment banning same-sex marriage into their Constitution.
At the same time, the president has a fundraiser this week with actor George Clooney and one with singer Ricky Martin next week. Many, if not most, of the donors at those events back same-sex marriage.
Presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney on Wednesday reiterated his opposition to "marriage between people of the same gender."
"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 said in an interview with Denver-based television station KDVR.
Contributing: CBS NEWS and The Associated Press