WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama said on Wednesday he believes same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, taking a stand on a divisive issue that is likely to please his political base and upset conservative voters.
"It is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married," Obama said in an interview with ABC's Robin Roberts.
Obama's comments came three days after Vice President Joe Biden said in a television interview that he was comfortable with gay marriage, and one day after North Carolina voters amended that state's constitution to ban it.
The comments made Obama the first president to publicly express his support for gay marriage.
Pressure had built on the Democrat president to clarify his views after Biden and other Cabinet members spoke out in favor of allowing gays and lesbians to wed - a touchy topic in a year in which Obama's race against Republican Mitt Romney in the Nov. 6 election is expected to be close.
ABC said Obama described his views as personal and still believed that US states should be able to decide on the issue.
Romney opposes same-sex marriage but supports hospital visitation rights and other domestic partnership benefits for gay and lesbian couples.
A Gallup poll released earlier this week indicated that half of Americans believe same-sex couples should have the same right to wed as heterosexuals while 48 percent do not. Gallup said the results "underscore just how divided the nation is on this issue."
Nearly two-thirds of Democrats support same-sex marriage, along with more than half of independents, while fewer than a quarter of Republicans believe it should be allowed.
Obama, who ended the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that prevented gays from serving openly in the military, said watching members of his staff who are in committed same-sex relationships and thinking about "soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained" had affected his thinking.
He also mentioned his children as an influential factor and said his wife, first lady Michelle Obama, shared his views.
"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," Obama said, according to a transcript.
"It doesn't make sense to them and frankly, that's the kind of thing that prompts a change in perspective."
His remarks were celebrated by Human Rights Campaign, a gay advocacy group, which said Obama had "made history" with the comments. Neera Tanden from the Center for American Progress described the expression of support as "another large step toward realizing this country's promise of equality."
Republican gay rights activists applauded the decision but were more muted.
"I am sure, however, the president's newly discovered support for marriage is cold comfort to the gay couples in North Carolina," said Christopher Barron, chief strategist of GOProud.
North Carolina voted on Tuesday to join 28 other states that have voter-approved constitutional bans on same-sex marriages, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Six states and the District of Columbia allow gay and lesbian marriage. In Colorado on Wednesday, a bill that would have granted civil unions to same-sex couples failed to advance to a full vote.