The new Special Relationship

Last updated 05:00 22/06/2014
Obama Key

SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP: US President Barack Obama shows Prime Minister John Key around the outside of the White House.

Barack Obama and John Key
US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister John Key in the Oval Office.

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For 30 missing minutes in Barack Obama's diary, the United States president and John Key did something unexpected.

They strolled the White House South Lawn, checked out the president's putting green, had a squiz at Obama's back office and First Lady Michelle Obama's famous veggie garden, and part of the White House the family use.

The unscheduled timeout followed a 50-minute working session to discuss issues including trade - and whether a deal can be done on the Trans-Pacific Partnership - the South China Sea dispute, climate change, North Korea and Iraq.

Key's second meeting with Obama at the Oval Office was supposed to wrap up at the end of that session. But the two leaders went for a walk instead.

"It was cool," said Key.

Key and Obama have clearly established a rapport. They are roughly the same age, share a passion for golf and both have a bolt-hole in Hawaii where they escape with family. Last Christmas, the pair spent a day on the golf course with Key's son Max while holidaying in Hawaii. Obama name-checked Max to the world's media after yesterday's meeting.

Key expects his relationship with Obama to endure beyond political life.

"I think so; my sense is he's always going to have a long-term interest and place in Hawaii and we certainly are. So, yeah, I think it is one of those things where both of us feel comfortable enough next year [to meet up] and yeah, have a game of golf after politics. The logistics would be a lot easier."

Yesterday's meeting was an opportunity to tick off items on the shopping list including a steer from the president on the prognosis for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which could struggle to stay afloat if Japan demands too many compromises.

Japan is likely to balk at significant concessions on agricultural tariffs and protections, a highly sensitive issue for the Japanese government domestically.

But the meeting also appears to have firmed the president's resolve to visit New Zealand.

In remarks after the meeting, Obama said he would "love to come to New Zealand because I hear it's really nice and I know the people are nice because I've had a chance to meet [Key].

"So we are going to be working with my schedule to see what I can come up with - if not this year, then certainly before the end of my presidency."

Obama is one of six world leaders invited to New Zealand on the fringes of the G20 summit in Brisbane in November but the government had previously downplayed the odds of him attending.

Key said it was during their golf game at Christmas that he asked the president to visit.

"He said to me he'd love to come but it's always difficult because of the pressure on his schedule. But he seems genuinely really interested in coming. He's quite forward-leaning in the comments he made both in private and the comments he made publicly and I think there's now actually a pretty reasonable chance he will get there."

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A visit will be a massive logistical operation even if Obama touches down for only half a day.

Security will be tight and extensive and there are already concerns behind the scenes at the number of world leaders who might take up the invitation and stretch the available resources.

Key said he told Obama he was "super-popular in New Zealand".

"They will love him if he comes, don't worry about that. It will be huge . . . it will be great."

- Sunday Star Times


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