Updated 05/09/12 - 3:40 p.m.
WASHINGTON (CBS) -- A day after voters in North Carolina approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, President Barack Obama told ABC News that "same-sex couples should be able to get married."
Obama has said for years that his views on gay marriage were "evolving," and his announcement of support for same-sex marriages comes three days after Vice President Joe Biden said he's "absolutely comfortable" with two men or two women getting married.
The issue has also become a major factor in the presidential race, as North Carolina voters voted Tuesday to add a gay marriage ban to their state's constitution. The state had already banned such marriages by law.
Obama has long supported civil unions for same-sex couples, but until now has not supported gay marriage.
"I hesitated on gay marriage in part because I thought civil unions would be sufficient," Obama told ABC News. "I was sensitive to the fact that for a lot of people the word 'marriage' was something that invokes very powerful traditions, religious beliefs and so forth."
"I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that Don't Ask Don't Tell is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, 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 said in an interview with Robin Roberts broadcast in a special report Wednesday afternoon.
Republican rival Mitt Romney was quick to respond to Obama's support for same-sex marriage, reiterating his opposition to gay marriage.
"My position is the same on gay marriage as it's been … from the beginning, and that is that marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman," the former Massachusetts governor said Wednesday. "That's a posture that I had as governor, and I have that today."
Romney said he is also opposed to civil unions for same-sex couples, if the unions are legally the same as marriage in all but name, "but I certainly recognize that hospital visitation rights and benefits of that nature may well be appropriate."
Illinois legalized civil unions for same-sex couples last year, following years of attempts to get the legislation through the Illinois General Assembly.
State Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago), the openly gay lawmaker who spearheaded the effort to legalize same-sex civil unions in Illinois, has since introduced legislation that would legalize same-sex marriage in Illinois, but has acknowledged there isn't enough support for the proposal yet.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was once Obama's chief of staff, has also voiced support for gay marriage and pledged to support Harris' push for allowing same-sex marriages in Illinois. The mayor reiterated his support for gay marriage on Wednesday, before learning of the president's announcement.
"I believe in gay marriage. I fought when I was mayor-elect for civil union legislation, calling legislators to do that," Emanuel said at an unrelated news conference. "But I also want everybody to take a step back, and remember the accomplishments of President Obama, and his stewardship in this short time, on behalf of gay and lesbian communities, that are consistent with our values, regardless of whether you're gay or lesbian."
Obama has repealed the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" military policy which banned gays from serving and has also asked the Justice Department not to enforce the "Defense of Marriage Act," which says marriage is only between a man and a woman.
The president spoke about his support for gay marriage in deeply personal terms, saying his young daughters, Malia and Sasha, have friends whose parents are same-sex couples.
"Malia and Sasha, it wouldn't dawn on them that somehow their friends' parents would be treated different," Obama said. "It doesn't make sense to them and frankly, that's the kind of thing that prompts a change in perspective."
Obama said his wife Michelle Obama was also involved in his decision and joins him in supporting gay marriage.
"In the end the values that I care most deeply about and she cares most deeply about is how we treat other people," he said.
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