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The 'evolution' of Obama's stance on gay marriage

Since stepping on to the national stage in 2004 when he ran for the Senate in Illinois, Barack Obama has shifted his views on whether same-sex couples should have the legal right to marry. “My feelings about this are constantly evolving,” Obama said about same-sex marriage in December of 2010. 

Carolyn Kaster / AP

President Barack Obama is seen on a monitor in the White House briefing room May 9 in Washington. President Barack Obama told an ABC interviewer that he supports gay marriage.

By Wednesday his views had evolved to the position that gay and lesbian rights advocates had urged upon him since 2004. Obama said, “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.”

Related: Obama backs same-sex marriage

Such couples already are able to get married in a few states.

But it was not yet clear from the excerpts that ABC News released on Wednesday afternoon whether Obama intended to use his political clout to try to get legislatures in the majority of states to change their laws, whether he would appoint federal judges who would overturn state laws on constitutional grounds, or by what other means he would use his power to enable same-sex couples to marry.

It also is not clear whether Obama still believes, as he said in 2006, that “decisions about marriage should be left to the states as they always have been.”

President Obama says he now supports same-sex marriage, ending months of equivocation on a subject with powerful election-year consequences. NBC's Brian Williams and Chuck Todd reports.

Obama’s Wednesday announcement was a reversal of his 2004 view that “marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman." At that time, he also indicated that civil unions were adequate for gays and lesbians. He contended that the difference between marriage and civil unions was partly just a matter of “semantics.”

According to Chicago’s Daily Herald, while Obama was running for Senate in early 2004, he told the newspaper’s editorial board that the gay rights struggle was comparable to the 1960s civil rights movement, saying that his father and mother wouldn't have been allowed to marry in some Southern states. "So it's not as if I'm not sympathetic to the idea that … politics shouldn't get in the way if something's right," Obama told the newspaper.

But then he added that gay rights advocates had to make strategic decisions and pushing for same-sex marriage wasn’t necessarily the best strategy.

“What I also tell my gay and lesbian friends is, look, if I was, you know, functioning in the early '60s trying to get the Voting Rights Act passed and the Civil Rights Act passed, then I might not lead politically with, you know, trying to reverse anti- miscegenation laws. ... I might really focus on getting rights that are concrete and that are going to be important and politically are achievable."

And as he was often to do in the next few years, he also accused opponents of same-sex marriage of trying to exploit the issue for their political advantage.

“Part of this is also politics. ... This is the latest wedge issue to divide the Democratic Party. And, you know, my interest is to avoid playing on their court on this issue," he said.

In the 2004 interview, Obama also talked about how his own faith shaped his views on the issue.

"My personal philosophy is that as a Christian, I see no contradiction with embracing same-sex couples as part of our community. That's my Christian ethos. But I think others within the Christian faith can feel very differently about it," Obama said.

In August 2004, as Obama battled Republican Alan Keyes in the Senate race, his rival accused him of equivocating on the issue. But Obama's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said, "Barack Obama is opposed to gay marriage but believes in civil unions as a policy, and secondly, our position on a constitutional amendment (limiting marriage to heterosexuals) is exactly the same position as Vice President Dick Cheney's in that it's unnecessary."

In a debate the following month with Keyes, Obama said, "I'm a Christian, and so although I try not to have my religious beliefs dominate or determine my political views on this issue, I do believe that tradition and my religious beliefs say that marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman," Obama said.

In the 2004 campaign Obama also addressed the 1996 law signed by President Bill Clinton, the Defense of Marriage Act which says that no state shall be required to recognize marriages between persons of the same sex performed in other states. 

He said in 2004 that DOMA was unnecessary because the U.S. Constitution “does not prevent a state from refusing to recognize a marriage that is contrary to its own marriage laws."

During Obama’s four years in the Senate, there was one major vote on the marriage issue. In 2006, then-Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and other GOP conservatives pushed for an amendment to the Constitution to clarify that there was no fundamental constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry.

Obama voted against moving ahead with the proposed amendment. “This debate is a thinly-veiled attempt to break a consensus that is quietly being forged in this country,” he said. “A consensus between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, Red States and Blue States, that it's time for new leadership in this country - leadership that will stop dividing us, stop disappointing us, and start addressing the problems facing most Americans.”

He said, "I personally believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. But I also agree with most Americans, including Vice President Cheney and over 2,000 religious leaders of all different beliefs, that decisions about marriage should be left to the states as they always have been."

When he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2007 and 2008, Obama spoke at a forum sponsored by the gay advocacy group, the Human Rights Campaign. On marriage, Obama said, “We should try to disentangle what has historically been the issue of the word ‘marriage,’ which has religious connotations to some people, from the civil rights that are given to couples, in terms of hospital visitation, in terms of whether or not they can transfer property or any of the other -- Social Security benefits and so forth.”

When HRC president Joe Solomonese suggested that Obama’s stand sounded to gays and lesbians like the discredited “separate but equal” doctrine that was used for decades to justify racial discrimination, Obama reverted to the tactical argument: “if I were advising the civil rights movement back in 1961 about its approach to civil rights, I would have probably said it's less important that we focus on an anti- miscegenation law than we focus on a voting rights law and a non- discrimination and employment law and all the legal rights that are conferred by the state.”

He said civil union for gays and lesbians “wouldn't be a lesser thing (than marriage), from my perspective. And look, you know, semantics may be important to some. From my perspective, what I'm interested is making sure that those legal rights are available to people.”

Later in the 2008 campaign Obama returned to his recurring theme that gay and lesbian rights were sometimes used to distract voters from what they really ought to be voting on: economic issues.

“People don't vote on economic issues because they don't expect anybody is going to help them," Obama told a crowd in Terre Haute, Ind., in April 2008. "So people end up voting on issues like guns and are they going to have the right to bear arms. They vote on issues like gay marriage."

But once he was elected president Obama disappointed his gay and lesbian allies by at first defending DOMA, a law which he had criticized. The Justice Department filed a motion to dismiss a legal challenge to DOMA in July of 2009. Justice spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said the department’s standard practice was to defending existing law.

"Until Congress passes legislation repealing the law, the administration will continue to defend the statute when it is challenged in the justice system," Schmaler said.

Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder changed their position in February 2011 when Holder announced the administration would not defend the constitutionality of Section 3 of DOMA as applied to same-sex married couples in the two cases filed in a federal appeals court

But as of last summer Obama was still disappointing his gay and lesbian supporters by repeating his view that marriage was an issue for each state to decide.

“Each community is going to be different and each state is going to be different,” he said at a White House press conference.

When NBC’s Chuck Todd asked, “Are you at all uncomfortable that there could be different rules in different states, you know, and for somebody to make the argument that's what we saw during segregation?”

Obama replied “what you're seeing is a profound recognition on the part of the American people that gays and lesbians and transgender persons are our brothers, our sisters, our children, our cousins, our friends, our co-workers, and that they've got to be treated like every other American. And I think that principle will win out.”

He said that he as president “can't dictate precisely how this process moves. But I think we're moving in a direction of greater equality and I think that's a good thing.”