Former US president Barack Obama has captivated an Auckland crowd, with tales of his presidency, family life, New Zealand, women leaders - and the 55-45 call on the daring raid on Osama bin Laden.

In a 75-minute Q&A session with actor Sam Neill in front of an invite-only audience of 1000 people, Obama joked he was visiting New Zealand on a "scoping" mission for wife Michelle.

He had not visited New Zealand until now because the country was a true friend and ally that had never caused issues during his presidency. He was particularly praising of Sir John Key for his support, as a leader and friend, during their respective tenures.

One of his most revealing comments on leadership came around the raid on the Pakistan compound in 2011 and the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States of America spoke of woman in leaders roles and life after the presidency at a dinner in Auckland on Thursday.
Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States of America spoke of woman in leaders roles and life after the presidency at a dinner in Auckland on Thursday.

He explained that issues only arrived on the Oval Office desk if they "were not entirely solvable".

As an example, he said it was still only a 55-45 chance that bin Laden was in the compound and not, say, a Pakistan general. "Once you are in the situation, you have to take the lead."

The 44th president of the United States of America also shared insights about life after the presidency and the importance of women in leadership roles and around boardroom tables.

He said he wasn't joking: he firmly believed if every country had a female leader for a mandatory period of, say, two years, then issues such as war, conflict and child poverty would ease.

Obama was dressed in a steel-blue/grey suit, open neck white shirt and black shoes as he sat in a large sofa chair in front of guests including Key, Sir Peter Jackson, Willie Apiata, and Theresa Gattung.

Sam Neill joked to Obama that he'd only bought a tie earlier in the day - only to be told he wouldn't need it. Obama said ties were constraining and he now tried to avoid them unless it was for a wedding or funeral - or meeting the Queen, "who I love".

The menu at last night's dinner.
The menu at last night's dinner.

One of the best things about post-presidency life was the reduced security and being able to "walk the dog at night with a baggy", he quipped - as dozens of security and police officers looked on at the Viaduct Events Centre.

Guests told the Herald that Obama had said China, and in particular President Xi Jinping, were starting to understand the critical role it played as a superpower after years of being somewhat of a free-riding country on the back of globalisation and moves such as its ascendancy to the WTO.


He implied China had to do more to step up, especially on issues such as the South China Sea dispute.

Obama steered clear of any references to his successor, Donald Trump, and Russia.

At one point Obama said he had realised that he himself was a slow speaker, with a unique cadence at times. This, he said, was partly because he liked to think before he spoke, something that did not seem to constrain some others.

Obama also paid tribute to his daughters Malia and Sasha for their empathy and coming out of the eight years in the White House "intact". They were smart, funny, gorgeous but, most importantly, kind.

His daughters treated everybody the same, no matter whether they were a cleaner or a head of state, he said.

He attributed this to his wife Michelle's parental magic and his mother in law who had kept them all grounded. He joked his mother in law was one of his biggest fans and protected him from Michelle - "oh leave him alone, he's such a sweet boy", he told guests.

Obama also said as a leader, it was important to look at the bigger picture. He recounted looking at the starry night in Northland last night, and remembering there were more stars - and associated planets - than grains of sand. In particularly stressful periods, he would remind staff of this.

He finished the night by quoting Martin Luther King - a comment that he said continues to give him hope and confidence: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

His only slight gaffe of the night was referring to Westpac, one of the chief sponsors, as West Bank.

Barack Obama receives a Maori hongi during a powhiri at Government House yesterday. Photo / Getty
Barack Obama receives a Maori hongi during a powhiri at Government House yesterday. Photo / Getty

Earlier, Obama met with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern after being welcomed at Government House with a stirring powhiri.

Obama's first words to Ardern were about her pregnancy - as they walked off for a meeting together, the former President was heard saying, "So, I hear you are expecting."

Obama arrived back in Auckland after two days golfing in Northland with former PM Sir John Key this afternoon.

He arrived at Government House around 3.50pm - an event which potentially was the only chance for members of the public to catch a glimpse of the former president.
The pōwhiri was led by iwi Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei.

Chief executive Rangimarie Hunia told Newstalk ZB it was an "absolute honour" for the iwi.

"We see him as one of the most influential leaders on the planet. To have the opportunity to welcome him in our traditional language, through the eyes and heart of our culture, means a lot to our people."