President Barack Obama told an ABC interviewer that he supports gay marriage on Wednesday. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
So, what does this announcement mean for gay people who want the federal government to legally recognize their marriages?
Not a lot right now, although the symbolic value of Obama's words could have a long-term effect on how voters and politicians think and talk about the issue, according to some leading gay-rights advocates.
"Today is more about moral leadership and less about policy," Sean Eldridge, senior adviser at Freedom to Marry, tells Yahoo News. "I don't think his statement will immediately translate into policy since marriage still is for the most part a state issue."
Six states and the District of Columbia permit same-sex marriage. Because of the Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, the federal government doesn't recognize those marriages, so federal benefits extended to married people, like Social Security and tax breaks, are not extended to same-sex unions.
Obama supports the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, and he ordered the Justice Department last year to abandon the law's defense.
The president also helped push through an end to the military's ban on openly gay servicemembers, and he expanded benefits for same-sex partners of federal employees.
Carey and other advocates have criticized Obama for tabling an executive order that would prohibit federal contractors from discriminating based on the sexual orientation of employees. The White House has given no signal that Obama would change his position on the matter.
Obama's support could help in November, however, when voters in Maryland, Washington, Maine and Minnesota will decide whether to ban gay marriage, Eldrige said. Gay marriage has been rejected every time the issue has been put to a vote, and advocates hope the president's new position could persuade voters to see the issue in a new way.
Rae Carey, president of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said that the president's words will encourage other lawmakers to support gay marriage, but will not spur Congress to act on gay rights issues.
Most of the big changes gay rights groups are pushing—including a federal law to ban employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation and the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act—would need to pass through Congress.
"I do not expect [Speaker John Boehner] to be moved by the president's remarks today," Carey said.
Boehner, who has said he believes marriage is between a man and a woman, opposes Obama's decision to no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act from its numerous court challenges. The Justice Department concluded the law was unconstitutional; Boehner and other members of Congress found outside attorneys to defend it.
Gay-rights advocates did not downplay the potential for Obama's words to spur other politicians to action, and to change the national conversation on gay marriage in a way that could bring big changes down the road.
"Once he expresses this leadership, it actually creates this space for other legislators to come forward and speak their heart," Carey said. It will also put pressure on other politicians to clarify their position on gay marriage, she said.
Richard Socarides, an adviser on gay rights during Bill Clinton's second term, said Obama's support could "help build a consensus around the way forward."
Two Republican gay rights groups criticized Obama for announcing his support the day after North Carolina passed a ballot initiative to ban gay marriage and civil unions, saying his words came too late.
"There is no practical effect on policy. He was already for DOMA repeal, and apparently in his remarks to Robin Roberts (of ABC News) he fully embraced the Dick Cheney federalist approach to marriage equality," GOProud co-founder Chris Barron said in an email, referring to the former vice president's opinion that states should be allowed to decide whether to legalize gay marriage.
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