Obama on Saturday declined to call the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians during World War I a genocide as he had promised as a presidential hopeful, instead painting the massacre as "one of the worst atrocities" of the 20th century and "a devastating chapter" in history.
In a statement issued as he and first lady Michelle Obama spent a weekend getaway here in western North Carolina, the president marked the 95th anniversary of the start of the slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman Turks with strong words but intently avoided branding it genocide.
It is "a devastating chapter in the history of the Armenian people, and we must keep its memory alive in honor of those who were murdered and so that we do not repeat the grave mistakes of the past," Obama said in his statement.
Yet for a second year as president, Obama eschewed calling it a genocide, as he promised during his campaign. Now well into his second year in office, he has not in public used the word many historians employ for the first mass killing of the 20th century.
Marking the grim anniversary of the start of the killings, the president instead said: "On this solemn day of remembrance, we pause to recall that 95 years ago one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century began."
The statement was less than the full and frank acknowledgment he promised Jan. 19, 2008, when he vowed that as president, "I will recognize the Armenian Genocide," and repeatedly used the word.
"I also share with Armenian Americans -- so many of whom are descended from genocide survivors -- a principled commitment to commemorating and ending genocide. That starts with acknowledging the tragic instances of genocide in world history. As a U.S. senator, I have stood with the Armenian American community in calling for Turkey's acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide."
Activists were quick to express disappointment.
"Today we join with Armenians in the United States and around the world in voicing our sharp disappointment with the president's failure to properly condemn and commemorate the Armenian Genocide," Armenian National Committee of America chairman Ken Hachikian said. "Sadly, for the U.S. and worldwide efforts to end the cycle of genocide, he made the wrong choice, allowing Turkey to tighten its gag-rule on American genocide policy."
For Obama, referring to the killings as genocide could upend pledges to have a closer partnership with Turkey, a vital ally in a critical region. Steering around the word, however, put him at odds with his own pledges to recognize the slaughter as genocide.
Instead, he said he had not changed his view from the campaign, even as he declined to state it.
"I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view of that history has not changed," Obama said in his statement, issued as he played golf at a mountaintop resort. "It is in all of our interest to see the achievement a full, frank and just acknowledgment of the facts."
Obama is closely watching as Turkey and Armenia approach an end to the long-simmering feud between the nations. The two countries signed agreements for reconciliation in October, but the deals still need to be approved by their parliaments. The agreements call for the establishment of diplomatic relations and the reopening of their border.
The agreement, if ratified, would reopen the border Turkey closed in 1993 to protest Armenia's war with neighboring Azerbaijan. The Turkish parliament has held up ratification of the deal as Turkey presses for a settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan over a region in Azerbaijan that has been under Armenian control since the war.
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomed Obama's comments but cautioned that Turkey would not take further steps to ratify the protocols in parliament until there is peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Turkey insists Armenia must withdraw its troops from Nagorno Karabakh before Turkey could reopen its border.
White House officials in March unsuccessfully tried to block the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives from calling the Ottoman-era killing of Armenians a genocide -- a move the administration worried would imperil those talks.
As a result, Turkey recalled its ambassador to Washington, Namik Tan. The ambassador has since returned to Washington.
Armenians say that 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I. Armenians and several nations around the world recognize it as the first genocide of the 20th century.
Turkey denies that the massacres were genocide, saying the death toll is inflated and Armenians were killed in civil unrest as the Ottoman Empire collapsed.