07/10/2013 11:24 EDT | Updated 09/09/2013 05:12 EDT

George W. Bush peeks out from self-imposed exile; pushes for immigration reform

WASHINGTON - In the five years since U.S. President Barack Obama's ascent to the White House, his predecessor has largely steered clear of the media spotlight, remaining close to home in Texas and resisting any pressure to speak out against the new commander-in-chief.

Even after the killing of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden in May 2011, George W. Bush declined an invitation from Obama to join him at the site of the 2001 terror attacks in lower Manhattan, saying he preferred to stay out of the public eye.

Bush insists he's still not interested in returning to the limelight despite a high-profile appearance alongside Obama last week in Tanzania and a recent poll that suggested 47 per cent of Americans approve, in retrospect, of how he handled the job of president.

"I'm out of politics," Bush told ABC's "This Week" in an interview that aired over the weekend.

"The only way I can really make news is either criticize the president, which I don't want to do, or criticize my own party, or wade in on a controversial issue. I'm off the stage."

Nonetheless, Bush has carefully stepped back onto that stage in recent months, throwing his support behind immigration reform — although he reportedly wants no part of returning to Washington to try to convince congressional Republicans to do the same. Lawmakers in the House of Representatives appeared poised on Wednesday to defeat a Senate immigration bill.

At a citizenship ceremony at his presidential library on Wednesday, the 43rd president once again made a gentle push for new immigration laws that would ease the path to citizenship for the country's illegal immigrants.

"I don't intend to get involved in the politics or the specifics of policy, but I do hope there is a positive resolution to the debate," he said.

"And I hope, during the debate, we keep a benevolent spirit in mind, and we understand the contributions immigrants make to our country."

With two overseas wars raging and an economic meltdown beginning to take hold, Bush's approval ratings had plummeted to as low as 23 per cent when he left office five years ago.

Obama has never hesitated to blame his predecessor's policies for many of the country's ills, a state of affairs that hasn't exactly resulted in an affectionate relationship of the type that Bill Clinton shares with his predecessor — and Bush's father — George H. W. Bush.

Bush and Obama, by most accounts, have a cordial but distant relationship. The two men were friendly last week at the Tanzania memorial service for the victims of the 1998 embassy bombing, but Bush later confessed in his ABC interview that they don't talk often.

"He's busy ... and I'm retired," said Bush, who'd been on the continent with his wife, Laura, to promote a program to fight cervical cancer.

It appears to be the correct approach — pollsters caution against any suggestion that Bush's rise in popularity is truly meaningful.

Americans are routinely forgiving of presidents after they leave office, they note. Bush's 49 per cent approval rating in a recent Gallup poll is well below the numbers for his retired predecessors, the pollster said in a release accompanying the June survey.

"Gallup's favourable ratings for Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton all exceeded 60 per cent when last measured," Gallup said.

"Americans' opinions of George W. Bush have improved with the passage of time ... but Bush's image improved more from 2009 to 2010 than it has in the past three years, even with a recent round of positive publicity from the opening of his presidential library. So that is not a guarantee he will see the 60 per cent -plus favourable ratings enjoyed by other former presidents anytime soon."

The U.S. media, indeed, appears to already view Bush as a lame-duck elder statesman.

"Immigration Reform Declared Dead on the Day George W. Bush Will Endorse It," read a headline Wednesday on the Atlantic website.