WASHINGTON (AP) " One way for President Barack Obama to win the future, it seems, is to have his administration stop defending a federal law that bans recognition of same-sex marriage.
Opinion polls show a steady rise in Americans' embrace of gay rights, and young voters solidly back positions their grandparents opposed, including gay marriage.
"Anybody under the age of 40 doesn't care, or actively supports it," said Steve Elmendorf, a longtime Democratic staffer and lobbyist.
The administration said Wednesday it no longer would defend the constitutionality of the 1996 federal law that defines marriage as only between a man and a woman. Attorney General Eric Holder cited recent shifts in legal thought, not public opinion, in explaining the decision.
"Much of the legal landscape has changed in the 15 years since Congress passed" the Defense of Marriage Act, Holder said. He noted that the Supreme Court has ruled that laws criminalizing homosexual conduct are unconstitutional and that Congress has repealed the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which barred service by openly gay men and women.
Five or so years ago, Obama's decision might have touched off fierce Republican criticisms. But reaction Wednesday was comparatively sparse and muted from mainstream GOP groups and individuals. Most of the Republicans weighing a presidential bid were silent, as was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
One exception was former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an evangelical minister who is considering a second try for the presidency.
"I think it was an absolutely boneheaded political move, and I think it was a boneheaded policy move," Huckabee said in an interview. He said Obama seems to say, "I don't answer to the voters."
At least 30 states have held referendums on the issue, Huckabee said, and "without exception, when the voters decide, they always decide to affirm marriage" between a man and woman.
Thirty states have constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. Same-sex marriage is legal in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and the District of Columbia. The 1996 law prevents the federal government from recognizing gay marriages and allows states to deny recognition of same-sex unions performed elsewhere.
Over the years, Obama has criticized the federal law without fully supporting gay marriage. White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday that Obama was still "grappling" with his view on the matter but had always personally opposed the Defense of Marriage Act as "unnecessary and unfair."
Public opinion on gay rights has shifted substantially in recent years. An October poll by the Pew Research Center found that 42 percent of adults favored same-sex marriage, while 48 percent opposed. A year earlier, it was 37 percent in favor and 54 percent opposed.
Pluralities of white mainline Protestants and white Catholics favored same-sex marriage for the first time in the Pew surveys' history, and the issue ranked at the bottom of voters' concerns in the 2010 elections.
So-called millennials " Americans born after 1980 " favor same-sex marriage by 53 percent to 39 percent. Gen Xers (born 1965 to 1980) favor gay marriage by a somewhat smaller margin. Slightly more than half of the baby boomers, born 1946 to 1964, oppose gay marriage, with 38 percent approving.
Even most Republicans under age 45 said same-sex couples should have the same benefits as opposite-sex couples, according to an Associated Press-National Constitution Center poll last summer.
"The country's moving, and it's moving fast," Elmendorf said. "No one has lost an election in the last 10 years" over gay marriage questions, he said.
Among traditional Democratic voters, blacks are more inclined to oppose same-sex marriage than are non-blacks. Black voters are Obama's most faithful backers, and Democratic strategists said it's unlikely the gay marriage issue would peel them away in his 2012 re-election bid.
Several congressional Republicans criticized Obama's decision Wednesday. But most cast it as a matter of misplaced priorities rather than solely a question of gay marriage.
"While Americans want Washington to focus on creating jobs and cutting spending, the president will have to explain why he thinks now is the appropriate time to stir up a controversial issue that sharply divides the nation," said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said Obama cares little about the Constitution, "but cares deeply about pandering to liberal interest groups. Traditional marriage is the foundation of America's culture, and the president's refusal to defend marriage undermines our nation's strength."
Associated Press writers Philip Elliott, Nancy Benac, Mark Sherman and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.
EDITOR'S NOTE " Charles Babington covers Congress and politics for The Associated Press.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.