Is George W. Bush returning to politics?

The former president lifts a self-imposed gag order to speak up on immigration reform

George Bush
(Image credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Former President George W. Bush has made a point of avoiding politics since leaving office in 2008. Lately, however, he has called attention to his own record fighting AIDS in Africa, and offered a glimpse of how he feels about two of the most controversial issues dividing Washington these days — gay marriage and immigration reform.

During an appearance at a citizenship ceremony Wednesday, Bush urged politicians to reach a "positive resolution" on the immigration reform debate, saying "the laws governing our immigration system are not working." This came days after Bush told ABC News' Jon Karl that people shouldn't be "overly critical" about gay marriage until they had looked into their own hearts.

Does this mean Bush is returning to the political stage? Maggie Haberman at Politico says Bush, who has been in "self-imposed political exile" since leaving office, is suddenly "having a resurgence." His approval numbers, which once dropped to 23 percent, "have climbed to a seven-year high of 47 percent in a recent Washington Post poll," she says — a hair higher than President Obama's.

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This is not to say that Bush is rushing to do a flurry of interviews or to play a more public role as his party emerges from the rubble of 2012. But for the moment, Bush is far more visible than he has been since leaving the White House. [Politico]

One thing that is not at all clear is whether Bush's recent outspokenness will have any political impact. In fact, argues David Weigel at Slate, "none of this seems to matter politically":

Republicans aren't capitalizing on any affection or nostalgia for Bush. The former president's short address on immigration today is having no impact on the current immigration debate. Republicans I talked to yesterday politely declined to say whether Bush's support for a bill was helpful; I took this to mean that it wasn't, really. Bush's recovery from sub-30 percent poll numbers has been welcomed by Republicans as a tool for gloating, with no corresponding look at Bush's policy preferences. It's something to crow about on Fox News before going back into the conference meeting to kill immigration reform. [Slate]

Still, it is hard to argue that something has changed. Dana Milbank at The Washington Post notes that former presidents usually "grow in public esteem as memories fade." In Bush's case, Milbank says, our forgiving and forgetting is accelerating now that the Iraq war is over and the economy is recovering. That means this is a good moment for Bush to reemerge, Milbank says, although he might be speaking up not out of a desire to wade back into politics, but to forge a legacy as a uniter.

[Bush] seems to have grasped that his own place in history can be improved by generosity toward Africa — and magnanimity toward opponents. Asked by Karl about the criticism that Obama hasn't done much for Africa, Bush disagreed, saying that Obama "cares deeply" about the continent and that his administration "has been incredibly helpful."With a laugh, Bush added: "It doesn’t surprise me that presidents get criticized." [Washington Post]

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