WASHINGTON (AP) — Nearing a milestone birthday, Michelle Obama exuberantly describes herself as “50 and fabulous.”

The U.S. first lady hits the half-century mark on Friday and, by her own account, she feels more relaxed now that President Barack Obama’s days as a candidate are over.

“It gives me a little more room to breathe,” she told an interviewer.

Nearly five years after assuming the first lady’s role following a bruising campaign in which she sometimes became a target, Mrs. Obama is showing increased comfort amid many responsibilities and outsized expectations.

“I have never felt more confident in myself, more clear on who I am as a woman,” she told Parade magazine when asked about the birthday. On Saturday, she’ll be toasted at a White House party where guests have been advised to come ready to dance.

Second presidential terms can be freeing for first ladies, just as they are for presidents, because there is no next election to worry over.

Like all first ladies, Mrs. Obama’s every move has been closely watched — and mercilessly critiqued. She gets wide credit for carefully shielding daughters Malia and Sasha, now 15 and 12, from the spotlight and for displaying a strong sense of style. But there have been missteps, too, like wearing $500 sneakers to a food bank, taking a pricey vacation to Spain during the economic downturn and being photographed wearing shorts aboard Air Force One.

Still, more of the public views Mrs. Obama favorably, 59 percent, than her husband, 46 percent, in an Associated Press-GfK poll conducted last month. She’s helped raise millions of dollars for him and other Democratic candidates and has drawn thousands to campaign rallies.

During her husband’s first presidential campaign, Mrs. Obama was widely criticized for saying she was proud of her country for the first time in her adult life.

After he was elected, she got back on the public’s good side after declaring that her daughters, who were 10 and 7 at the time, were her top priority and she would be “mom in chief.” She began to expand her role after feeling satisfied that they had adjusted to White House life.

Mrs. Obama planted a vegetable garden on a patch of the South Lawn, the first one there in decades. She used it to begin a national conversation about the country’s childhood obesity problem, and the importance of eating right and getting enough exercise.

The message has rippled far from that modest start, and the first lady can claim some of the credit.

Retailers and food makers are reformulating processed foods to cut down on sugar, salt and fat. School lunches are being made healthier and retailers are opening stores in places with limited or no access to fresh food.

Mrs. Obama once said she’s willing “to make a complete fool out of myself to get our kids moving” and has kept her word by doing jumping jacks, kicking soccer balls and dancing with groups of children to make the point that exercise can be fun.

The new health care law being one exception, Mrs. Obama rarely makes an overt push for her husband’s policies. But she’ll begin using her personal story of overcoming obstacles to getting an education to help him meet a previously announced goal of having the U.S. achieve the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

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