It is not every morning a former President of the United States wakes up in New Zealand. Barack Obama probably still catches up on the news as soon as he wakes so it might not be too presumptuous to say, Good morning, Mr President. It is a fine tradition in the US that former politicians carry for life the title of the highest office they have reached.

It probably remains as much a burden as an honour for them. They never really revert to being ordinary citizens. Wherever they go they continue to represent the office and the reputation of their country, state, city or district as the case may be. And part of their duty to the office obliges them not to draw attention from the incumbent, which will be one reason President Obama will seldom be seen in public while he is here.

Over the next two days he will address a dinner of invited guests, meet Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and selected young people, and have two rounds of golf hosted by Sir John Key. Former Prime Ministers of New Zealand also carry the reputation of that office for life, even if nobody calls them Prime Minister any more, and they usually observe the same obligation to take no limelight from the incumbent. So the nearest we will probably get to hearing from Obama is whatever Ardern chooses to tell the press about their chat.

She notes he has taken particular interest in youth leadership since leaving office and looks forward to discussing that subject with him. Obama represented a generational change for the US presidency as well as an ethnic breakthrough. His efforts to fulfil the hopes of a new generation and the lessons of his successes and disappointments will be of keen interest to a young Prime Minister just six months into her term.


Obama's greatest achievement, though not all Americans agree, was his reform of healthcare. It falls short of the universal coverage other developed countries provide for their citizens but it provides mandatory insurance to many more than could afford it before. It was a need all previous Presidents had recognised but lacked the courage to take on insurance providers.

His greatest frustration, he has said, was his failure to reform gun laws. Obama should know that his heartfelt appeals to American public opinion after mass shootings were widely admired in the rest of the world.

He was a rare President who knew the Pacific and Asia better than most. Born and raised in Hawaii he also spend some of his childhood in Indonesia. As President his style was more modest and collegial than most, a style more familiar to the Pacific, and he moved US diplomatic and strategic effort in this direction. The Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement owes a great deal to his leadership and the way is open for the US to rejoin it when good sense returns to Washington.

US politics took an unfortunate turn after the high hopes and idealism of Obama's election. He became a target of vicious misinformation, some of it stoked by the man who now carries the same title. Obama endured it with unfailing grace and restraint. He was a class act and still is. It is an honour to have him here.