Turning 50, Michelle Obama focuses on final 3-year stretch in White House

First lady Michelle Obama is celebrating her 50th birthday with a blowout dance party. Here's a look at some of her best moves and grooves. (Julie Percha/The Washington Post)

Her husband’s pressure-packed days as a candidate are over. Her daughters have grown more independent. She’s almost ready to look around the corner and envision life after the White House.

It’s halftime for Michelle Obama.

As she turns 50 this Friday and begins her sixth year as first lady, Obama is clear on who she is and looks forward to the three remaining years, said Valerie Jarrett, a longtime friend and adviser to the Obamas.

“She’s at the top of her game,” Jarrett said. “She’s fabulous at 50.”

In a wide-ranging interview about aging with People Magazine, Obama she said she feels “a greater sense of calm and certainty and maturity and confidence” than she did when she was younger.

Asked for her philosophy on plastic surgery and Botox, she said she’s open. “Women should have the freedom to do whatever they need to do to feel good about themselves. Right now, I don’t imagine that I would go that route, but I’ve also learned to never say never.”

She looks forward to traveling to new places and — when she’s older — being an involved grandmother and taking on the unapologetic attitude of her own mother. “She speaks her mind,” Obama told People. “She does exactly what she wants to do every single day without apology. I’m not there yet, but I look forward to that.”

With more time spent in the White House than time remaining, Obama has hit not just a personal milestone but a significant point in her tenure as first lady, said Anita McBride, who was chief of staff to Laura Bush.

“This is when it really hits what a temporary custodianship this really is,” McBride said of life in the White House. “One of the things you’re thinking about is this realization of how fast the time goes. We were just going through the inauguration and here there’s another year under their belts. You start thinking about just how much you want to do.”

For Obama, that means plotting how she can aid the administration’s programs boosting higher education. After her husband’s reelection, she and her staff underwent weeks of strategic planning to determine what she would do in the second term. In addition to supporting military families and promoting health and wellness, she decided to focus on encouraging more young people to attend college.

After an extended Christmas vacation in Hawaii with her family and an extra week hanging with girlfriends, including Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King, at Winfrey’s Maui vacation home, Obama is back in Washington and focused on her budding education initiative.

On Wednesday, after a White House movie screening of “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete” and a talk promoting education, Obama spoke to teachers, high school counselors and education advocates alongside singer-songwriter Alicia Keys, the film’s producer. Obama’s voice broke while addressing the challenges young people in impoverished neighborhoods face. “We have to show these kids that they’re not doing this alone. That’s what we’re here for.”

She is scheduled to join the president Thursday for a meeting with 100 college presidents to discuss ways to boost college enrollment among low-income students.

It is an expansion of what Jarrett sees as Obama’s biggest imprint as first lady: serving as a role model.

“She and her husband are role models for parents all across the country,” Jarrett said in a phone interview. “She shows that it’s hard work. It’s not something that you can be passive about. It takes a lot of energy and devotion.”

Jarrett added that Obama is as focused on her daughters as she was when the family moved into the White House, in 2009. With Malia and Sasha, now 15 and 12, Obama has described managing their independence as a time-intensive task. Both daughters have cellphones and, like many parents, the first lady has lamented the days when a child’s friends called the land line and had to speak to the parent first. She’s also the parent responsible for coordinating her daughters’ activities and schedules.

“She takes her responsibilities as a mother very seriously,” Jarrett said. “She and the president joke about how now that their daughters are getting older that they have a more busy social life of their own. But they still need their mother.”

Obama’s official schedule will continue according to the clockwork rhythm set up in the East Wing. The Let’s Move campaign marks its fourth year in February, when she traditionally holds a tour promoting healthy eating and exercise. Her work on behalf of military families, which includes encouraging companies to set aside jobs for returning service members, will also continue.

“I will be in my early 50s when I leave here, and I have so much more that I should do,” Obama told People. “I don’t have the right to just sit on my talents or blessings. I’ve got to keep figuring out ways to have an impact — whether as a mother or as a professional or as a mentor to other kids.”

But first, she has a birthday to celebrate. Obama will hold a private dance party at the White House this weekend — she plans to do the Dougie, a move that was popular with teenagers a few years ago.

Perhaps showing her age?

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has been a business reporter, covered presidential campaigns and written about civil rights and race. More recently, she has covered the first lady's office, politics and culture.
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