By MAGGIE HABERMAN | 7/10/13 4:55 AM EDT Updated: 7/10/13 10:38 AM EDT

He was the invisible man of the 2012 campaign, not to mention most of President Barack Obama’s first term.

Yet in recent weeks, former President George W. Bush is having a resurgence: He’s speaking out on immigration reform and AIDS in Africa and gingerly addressing the gay marriage debate. And in a twist few would have predicted even six months ago, Bush’s public approval rating recently eclipsed Obama’s.

His supporters insist he has no strategy, no master plan for public re-entry. But the Republican who left the White House amid two unpopular wars and with few fans in either party appears to be in the early stages of settling into the role of elder statesman, on his own terms.

On Wednesday, Bush spoke at a citizenship ceremony event at his just-opened presidential library in Dallas — as House lawmakers on the same day were set to take up the rancorous topic of immigration reform.

“We are a nation of laws, and we must enforce the laws,” he said, according to the Dallas Morning News. “But we have a problem. The laws governing our immigration system are not working. The system is broken.” Bush called for a “positive resolution” to the debate in Congress.

The 43rd president has spent most of his post-White House life in self-imposed political exile, staying at his home in Texas and far away from Washington, a world he never really took to. He endorsed Mitt Romney through the closing doors of an elevator. And Bush remained quiet as a backlash within his party — triggered largely by government spending on his watch — gave rise to the tea party movement, the effects of which have lingered throughout Obama’s presidency.

Lately, though, he’s become more open about his support for immigration reform, harkening back to the “compassionate conservatism” that was the hallmark of his 2000 presidential campaign just as the current GOP is grappling with how to broaden its appeal. He’s also been vocal about his work to reduce AIDS in Africa.

What’s more, his approval ratings — once as low as 23 percent — have climbed to a seven-year high of 47 percent in a recent Washington Post poll. A CNN poll last month showed Obama’s approval at 45 percent.

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