Is it goodbye to Arnie, or just Hasta La Vista?

Arnold Schwarzenegger is about to bow out as Governor of California – but what will he do next, asks Guy Adams

He swaggered into town waving a cigar, clicking the heels of his $3,000 cowboy boots, and telling all America that he intended to sort out the dysfunctional mess that is the government of its most populous state.

Or as Arnold Schwarzenegger put it, during the many extravagant moments of his 2003 election campaign, he was about to "kick the butts" of the "girlie men" politicians who run California.

On Monday, the "Governator" will be in the state capital, Sacramento, to watch the curtain fall on his long reign with the swearing-in of his successor, Jerry Brown. And while you may not be able to tell from the megawatt smile, or the tangerine tan, or the wisecracks he will no doubt exchange in that strangely amusing brand of Germanic English, it will not be a very happy ending: amid the pomp and circumstance is an ugly whiff of failure.

Schwarzenegger, 63, leaves office with terrible approval ratings, of just over 30 per cent. To some Californians, he's an abject disappointment; to others, the unfortunate victim of a broken system. No one knows in what capacity, to quote his old catchphrase, he'll ever be back. A few years ago, he was being lauded as a potential future President. Now, like any other ageing Hollywood celebrity, he's juggling offers of movie cameos and charity work.

"The list is a long list of things I can do, but nothing I can concentrate on until I am literally, totally out of office," Schwarzenegger said this week, in a characteristically vague assessment of his future. "For me the joy of life is not to know, and you get into it and you kind of figure it out. I love that."

Overhanging the Schwarzenegger era is a single pertinent fact. As Governor, he never managed to "figure it out" when it came to the most critical issue California faces: how to stave off a snowballing fiscal crisis that left its administration spending far more each year than it can generate in income. The books he pledged to balance, by knocking heads together and rooting out corruption, now resemble those of Greece, with a $25bn public deficit, creaking services, and red ink everywhere.

The one success of his time in office, environmental laws that place strict limits on California's greenhouse gas emissions (a bold template which other states are likely to follow) has meanwhile been lost on the US public, because it has yet to be actually implemented: it was vetoed by fellow Republican George Bush, at the behest of oil companies. Arnie's signal achievement will not therefore begin to take effect until later this year.

"Given Schwarzenegger's monumental aspirations when he set out, his time in office has to be considered a failure," is the stern assessment of his biographer, Laurence Leamer. "California today is in worse shape than when he came in. The education system is a mess, infrastructure is terrible, roads are full of potholes. Bridges are neglected. It's sad.

"You can of course defend him by saying that the problems he faced were too big for one person to solve. But he promised more. He held himself to a higher standard. I look at Schwarzenegger now and see a perfect metaphor for California: the great days of the state are coming to an end, and he's this big, overblown man, watching it happen."

The big man has at least been fun to watch, though. Like many of his most lucrative films, Arnie's reign has made up for lack of substance by being long on entertainment. He waltzed into politics in a razzle-dazzle of designer suits and snakeskin boots, built a smoking tent in the garden of his official mansion so that deals could be brokered over brandy and enormous cigars, and used the wall behind his desk to hang the chintzy sword he carried in the Conan films.

Daily life in camp Schwarzenegger was full of improbable PR stunts. Staffers still joke about the day "Arnold" posed for the cameras with a python round his neck, or the time he installed a 250-pound bronze of a bear beneath the gold lettering outside his office. They remember with glee him sending a Democratic state politician a sculpture of bull's testicles, with a handwritten note telling him to acquire some "cojones".

In person, Schwarzenegger was always a mixture of action hero and showman. One day, he'd have stitches in his face after crashing his Harley Davidson while riding without a proper permit. The next moment, he'd be in plaster following a skiing accident. To listen to his occasional speeches was like witnessing a charming version of John Prescott. When transcribed, his garbled English made little sense, but to a live audience, he was the perfect communicator: short, self-deprecating, vulgar, and often unspeakably funny.

To a certain extent, this was what California signed up for. The Terminator star used a late-night chat show to announce that he intended to run in a special election for the state's highest office, which had been scheduled for November 2003 after the previous governor, Gray Davis, had been prematurely recalled by voters angry at his failure to tame careering public debt.

Arnold seemed at first like the perfect fit for an eclectic electorate. Fiscally conservative but socially liberal, he was a centrist Republican who promised to bring an outsider's rigour to government in the style of

his hero Ronald Reagan, also a former Governor of California. He was all things to all people: a man with right-wing tastes who sandal-wearing lefties could just about stomach.

He cared for the environment, yet drove a Hummer. After winning his first election, comfortably, he began commuting to Sacramento from his home in Brentwood, an expensive part of West Los Angeles, via private jet. When people called him a hypocrite, the wealthy film star responded that he would "offset" the carbon emissions. You can get away with that kind of thing on America's left coast.

Winning elections was, however, only half of the challenge. To actually govern, Schwarzenegger needed the support of California's Senate. And there his reign stalled. With the state careering towards bankruptcy, he found it impossible to get the legislature to sort out its finances. Democrats, who controlled the most seats, blocked efforts to decrease spending. But Republicans could veto any tax raises, since under state law those needed to be approved by a 60-40 majority. The result was gridlock.

A man whose campaign rallies had seen him play air guitar to the tune "We're Not Gonna Take It," and who had promised to be a transformative "tough guy," failed to deliver change. He watched helplessly as California's debt quadrupled, from $6bn when he took office to $25bn today.

His image was also hampered by a string of gaffes, many related to his poor grasp of English. He once talked of "closing" the Mexican border, when he meant to advocate "securing" it. Battered, he withdrew from the media, ending regular press conferences. To advisers, that was sensible. To the public, it seemed aloof.

And so the big man leaves office, tolerated rather than loved, to spend more time with his wife Maria Shriver, a Democrat and scion of the Kennedy dynasty. Though it now seems more unlikely than it did seven years ago, and will take a change in the US Constitution to happen (since he was born in Austria), there are still those who wonder if Arnie could yet manage a tilt at the Presidency.

“Love him or hate him, he brought charm and glamour to office, and got a lot of things done on the environment,” says Ian Halperin, author of a recent biography, The Governator. “I still see him standing for the White House, in 2016, with Bloomberg as VP. In fact, when he went to see Ted Kennedy on his death bed last year, Arnold promised to change the constitution and make a run for president. And Ted Kennedy was delighted.”

So could Schwarzwenegger, ever the action history, manage an unlikely comeback? Could he end up writing the next great chapter in the history of America’s most famous political dynasty? Logic, surely, says not. But it’s a fascinating thought.

The highs

July 2008: California becomes first US state to ban trans fats in restaurants, as they are a cause of heart disease.

August 2006: The Global Warming Solutions Act binds California to a 25 per cent cut in greenhouse gases by 2025.

October 2004: California's ban on deepwater oil drilling is reconfirmed, six years before BP's Gulf of Mexico debacle.

The lows

December 2010: Arnie's approval rating hits record low of 30 per cent as he exits.

July 2008: Fails to get approval for tax cuts during the financial crisis. California is left now with a $25.4bn budget deficit.

September 2004: Accused of homophobia after he says US lawmakers are pessimistic "girlie-men" on the economy.