By JULIE PACE, ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON — Ending months of equivocation, President Barack Obama declared his support for gay marriage on Wednesday, an announcement fraught with history that also injects a potentially polarizing issue into the 2012 race for the White House.

"I have hesitated on gay marriage in part because I thought that civil unions would be sufficient," Obama said in an interview with ABC at the White House. He added that, "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."

Now, he said, "it is important for me personally to go ahead and affirm that same-sex couples should be able to get married."

Obama's announcement cheered gay rights groups who have long urged him to support gay marriage. It also opened up a new area of disagreement with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who opposes gay marriage.

Polling suggests the nation is evenly divided on the issue.

Obama 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.

Acknowledging that his support for same-sex marriage may rankle religious conservatives, Obama said he thinks about his faith in part through the prism of the Golden Rule – treating others the way you would want to be treated.

"That's what we try to impart to our kids and that's what motivates me as president and I figure the most consistent I can be in being true to those precepts, the better I'll be as a as a dad and a husband and hopefully the better I'll be as president," Obama said.

Below, a slideshow of reaction from within the political community to Obama's remarks.

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  • Mitt Romney

    "I believe marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman," Mitt Romney said.

  • Kyrsten Sinema

  • Daniel O'Donnell

  • Kirsten Gillibrand

  • Jeff Merkley

  • Elizabeth Warren

  • Michael Bloomberg

    "This is a major turning point in the history of American civil rights," said New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. "No American president has ever supported a major expansion of civil rights that has not ultimately been adopted by the American people - and I have no doubt that this will be no exception. The march of freedom that has sustained our country since the Revolution of 1776 continues, and no matter what setbacks may occur in a given state, freedom will triumph over fear and equality will prevail over exclusion. Today's announcement is a testament to the President's convictions, and it builds on the courageous stands that so many Americans have taken over the years on behalf of equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans, stretching back to the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village."

  • Jerrold Nadler

    "I applaud President Obama for announcing his support for marriage equality today," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) "For the first time in this nation's history, a sitting president has shown the courage and leadership to stand up for all American families by pledging to support the fundamental right of every person to marry the person they love, and to have that marriage fully respected. I commend President Obama for this brave and honest step. Those who seek to politicize civil rights for personal or political gain will certainly attack him, but the course toward marriage equality and justice is the correct and inevitable path."

  • Brad Lander

  • Fred Karger

    "I'm thrilled!" longshot GOP presidential candidate Fred Karger told HuffPost, referring to Obama's embrace of marriage equality. Karger is the first openly gay Republican or Democrat to run for president. "The Karger pressure has worked," he joked. "Particularly after the defeat in North Carolina, we welcome him to the full equality position."

  • Vince Gray

  • Martin O'Malley

  • Sen. Jeanne Shaheen

  • Barack Obama

  • Mark Udall

  • Senator Chris Coons

  • Rep.George Miller

  • Jim Himes

  • Nancy Pelosi

  • Nita Lowey

    "I have been blessed to have a long and happy marriage. I strongly believe all Americans deserve that same opportunity," said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.)

  • Antonio Villaraigosa

  • Jackie Speier

  • Michael Steele

  • Dennis Kucinich

  • John Brunner

  • Cory Booker

  • Chris Gregoire

  • Fred Karger

  • Ted Strickland

  • Jared Polis

  • Reince Priebus

    "While President Obama has played politics on this issue, the Republican Party and our presumptive nominee Mitt Romney have been clear. We support maintaining marriage between one man and one woman and would oppose any attempts to change that," said RNC Chairman Reince Priebus.

  • Debbie Wasserman Schultz

  • Chellie Pingree

  • Christine C. Quinn

  • Mike Huckabee

    "Barack Obama just announced he supports same-sex marriage," Mike Huckabee wrote in a fundraising appeal to supporters. "Nancy Pelosi immediately jumped on the announcement and emailed Democrat activists nationwide promising to continue their fight. This is going to be a defining issue this election. Obama, Pelosi and the Democrats have been a complete failure on economic issues so now they are going to focus on issues that will rile up their base. Well, Mr. President it's going to rile up our folks also. Men and women who support traditional marriage."

  • Rep. Bill Taylor

  • Deval Patrick

  • Frank Lautenberg

    "President Obama's support for marriage equality marks an important moment for civil rights in America," said Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ), who co-sponsored legislation that would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). "We simply can not treat same sex couples as second-class citizens in our country. Marriage equality is one of the most significant civil rights battles of our time and is critical to guaranteeing the equal protection under the law promised to every American in the Constitution. The President's support for marriage equality should inspire Congress, Governors and state legislatures to advance civil rights for all Americans."

  • Allen West

  • Ann McLane Kuster

  • Sen. Patrick Leahy

  • Peter Welch

    "This is an historic moment and I applaud the President for his decision and courage," Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said. "One of the greatest and most liberating human emotions is acceptance. And what the President did today was accept that the quality of love two people share is more important than their gender. The President's decision required him look within and engage his heart. It is truly wonderful and welcome news."

  • Senator Patty Murray

  • Steve Rothman

    "As an early and strong proponent of Marriage Equality, I am very happy that President Obama has made this announcement," said Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.) "Marriage Equality is a matter of basic human rights and all of America's same-sex families are now closer to having their unions recognized by our government. This is an important step in our country's march toward achieving true justice and equality for all."

  • Chuck Schumer

  • JackieForNH

  • Howard Dean

    "President Obama's public support for marriage equality is an historic affirmation of the fundamental American value of equal rights for all," said Howard Dean. "Having signed the nation's first law allowing Civil Unions as Governor of Vermont, I'm also proud to see our president affirm the belief that I and so many other Americans hold: loving and committed couples should have the same benefits that are extended through marriage. Marriage equality is a right and a benefit to all families."

  • Mike Quigley

  • Senator Ben Cardin

  • Sen. Barbara Boxer

  • Senator Dick Durbin