WASHINGTON – Having signed into law a repeal of the military’s ban on openly gay service members, President Obama now faces pressure from his allies to move on a much tougher and divisive issue: gay marriage.

Obama has long said that his preference is for states to create civil unions for same-sex couples that convey the legal protections and rights of marriage.

“I think that’s the right thing to do,” he said Wednesday during a news conference. “But I recognize that (for same-sex couples) it is not enough, and I think (that) is something that we’re going to continue to debate.”

Gay rights activists are pressing that debate, urging Obama to publicly call for states to allow same-sex marriage. It is fundamentally unfair, they say, that a gay soldier could die while serving but not be allowed in most states to marry his or her partner.

Conservatives, meanwhile, are warning that the American public would not welcome such a move by the president. Polls show that voters are far more supportive of allowing gays to serve in the military than they are of gay marriage.

Indeed, public opinion is so divided on the issue that the president would probably need months to sway voters to his position — time and attention that would potentially limit his ability to work on issues such as the economy.

Obama seems to recognize the political quandary.

At the news conference and during an interview this week with the gay and lesbian magazine the Advocate, he praised the same-sex couples he knows and noted the broad support of same-sex marriage by people who are in their 20s.

But rather than declare his support for gay marriage, Obama hedged, saying that his views on the subject are “evolving” and that “I struggle with this.” He did not reverse his previous position that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.

“It’s good to hear his views are not solidly where they have been, but he’s still not there on marriage,” said Brian Moulton, chief legislative counsel of the Human Rights Campaign, an influential gay rights group based in Washington.

But noting Obama’s remarks this week about the importance of treating gay soldiers equally in the military, Moulton said, “It’s hard to square that circle” with his refusal to publicly call for formalized gay marriage.

“Support for gay rights is no longer the third rail of political danger that it perhaps once was,” said John Aravosis, a prominent liberal blogger. “There’s really no excuse for the president’s, or any Democratic politician’s, reticence on marriage equality.”

Andrea Lafferty, a conservative activist who runs the Traditional Values Coalition, scoffed at Obama’s remarks, saying his views “are not evolving. He was always for homosexual marriage. But he knows the majority of the American public doesn’t support it.”

White House officials emphasized that Obama spoke about gay marriage in response to questions from reporters. The administration does not plan any major push on same-sex marriage, aides say, and they have given no timeline as to when, or even if, Obama might reconsider the issue.

It’s unclear whether Obama would gain any political advantage from publicly backing gay marriage. Those calling most fervently for his intervention already back the Democratic Party, and most polls show a plurality of Americans still oppose the idea, although the number of proponents is growing.

A Pew Research Center poll released in October showed 48 percent of people nationally opposed gay marriage, while 42 percent were in favor, compared with 54 percent opposition and 37 percent support in 2009.

A majority of Democrats and people younger than 30, groups that largely already back Obama, support legalizing gay marriage. But voters 65 and older, a critical part of the electorate that swung heavily to the GOP in 2010, are mostly opposed to the idea.

Obama’s views on same-sex marriage may be symbolically important, but they would have little direct impact on overturning policy, unlike with “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Marriage law is largely set by states, five of which allow same-sex couples to wed, as does the District of Columbia.

But it remains a potent political issue. No sitting president has declared his support for same-sex marriage, and in 2004, President George W. Bush called for a constitutional amendment to ban it. Voters in 11 states approved provisions that year that defined marriage as solely between a man and a woman.

Obama has said he will seek the repeal of a 1996 federal law called the Defense of Marriage Act, but the White House has not pushed the issue.