How odd that President Bush, once a darling of conservatives, will come to be loathed by most of them.

Bush's legacy, all but set in stone as his days in office dwindle, will not only be the crippling war in Iraq, which he will leave to his successor to end, but stunning changes in government.

He just signed an astonishingly vast housing law, dismaying many conservatives. After threatening a veto, he privately, without the press to record the moment, signed a measure supposed to keep as many as 400,000 homeowners out of foreclosure (although more than 3 million are in trouble). But it also puts the government in the housing market in ways nobody can foresee and gives mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac an unlimited line of credit. Three out of four Republican lawmakers opposed it.

Bush so misunderstood regulation that he weakened dozens of federal agencies, installing incompetent people at the helm, pulling the rug from under them or cutting their budgets so substantially they have no enforcement power. In doing so, he increased uncertainties in the marketplace.

From the Food and Drug Administration to the Consumer Product Safety Commission to the Environmental Protection Agency, consumers and businesses are in a state of confusion. Whether it's global warming or clean air and water or safe toys or tobacco regulation, there are so many conflicting signals and such piles of litigation, it won't be sorted out for decades.

Bush's alienation of many parts of the world may be rectified or modified in a matter of months, depending on the next president's priorities. It is Bush's policies — and such catastrophes as Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib — with whom they have a dispute, not Americans.

But Bush's trampling on civil liberties will linger for years. The scientists, engineers and brilliant thinkers this country educated in its universities who were sent back to their own countries in the wake of 9/11 will be unable to contribute to solving our problems. Even in their old countries, many will not have the conditions, equipment, backing or money to do the research and innovative, collaborative thinking they would have done here. A nation of immigrants has kicked the door shut.

Because of this administration, the government has powers to spy on, record, covertly listen in on and read the mail and e-mail of ordinary Americans. That may set well when Americans are terrified of terrorists, but it will not set well if someday we disintegrate into a police state. Already, there are too many false imprisonments and official harassment of innocent citizens.

On the same day Bush quietly signed the omnibus-housing bill, he exuberantly signed a bill authorizing $48 billion over five years to treat and prevent AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. But for the last seven years Bush enforced a rule that most HIV-positive people could not enter the United States. Why do presidents yield to their compassionate urges as they are leaving office?

A capitalist, Bush leaves American capitalism in tatters. His tax cuts have benefited only the wealthiest. The Economist magazine reports three-fourths of the economic gains during Bush's presidency went to the top 1 percent of wealthy Americans. His policies did not lead to a trickle-down economy, or to an increase in the nation's wealth.

The saddest, most disheartening legacy of the Bush years is that a can-do democracy has lost its optimism and respect for its own traditions. The polls, for once, seem accurate. Three out of 10 approve of Bush. One out of seven thinks Congress is doing a good job. Only one out of 18 thinks the economy is in good shape.

It is to be hoped this is a temporary state of affairs, but it is too soon to know.

Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail [email protected]