There was not much call for humour in the Oval Office in Washington on Saturday.

President Barack Obama had just been briefed about a major terrorist attack in Norway and his talks with the Speaker of the House to avert defaulting on paying the nation's debt were going off the rails.

He just sat in his armchair, portrait of George Washington above, his legs crossed towards the coffee table - not Prime Minister John Key - and made a few well-chosen comments about New Zealand.

He did wish the US rugby team well in the World Cup, which doubled as a light moment.

Key's staff stood with Obama's at the Oval Office desk, behind the horseshoe of cameras and reporters watching a ritual that is repeated during most foreign visits.

The big ones get add-ons, such as a conference or a state dinner.

In better circumstances, the meeting would have been a little more informal. Informality is a personal and political style they share, as is getting on with everyone.

From the moment they met at the United Nations in 2009, they got on. Reasons include:

* They have a lot in common.

* They are both leaders of their countries.

* They were both elected to high office in November 2008.

* They are both married with two children.

* They both turn 50 next month.

* They both have homes in Hawaii.

And now we know they both mangle their words.

Obama twice referred to Key as "Keys" - and did not correct himself - but it is a mistake commonly made even in New Zealand, according to Key himself. Anyway, they know each other by their first names.

When Key told him about the Ngai Tahu mere, the official gift, Obama asked to be sent details so he could write personally to say thank you. Maybe Key will get a note about his name also.