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Arnold Schwarzenegger: Was He a Great Governor or Not?

Arnold Schwarzenegger. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Arnold Schwarzenegger. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

With his voluminous successes in the entertainment industry and various business dealings, it’s easy to forget that Arnold Schwarzenegger was once the governor of California. 

His new documentary series, out on Netflix, won’t let anyone ignore that part of his career. The third and final installment of the series follows the Austrian’s transition to politics. Like any good celebrity, Schwarzenegger is exploiting his own life to prolong his career as much as possible.  

Recall Election 

Schwarzenegger was in Mexico promoting his third Terminator movie when he heard that California voters were considering recalling Governor Gray Davis who had led the state into a $38 billion budget deficit and a failing economy. 

While Schwarzenegger batted the idea of campaigning to fill the seat, he didn’t devise a solid plan. Instead, in typical Hollywood style, Schwarzenegger simply announced his candidacy on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show.”

Most called him crazy, but the Terminator brought the same attitude to politics that made him successful in fitness and entertainment. “The more someone says that you can’t or that this is impossible the more I get excited over it.” 

Much like Donald Trump, Schwarzenegger garnered immediate attention based on his celebrity status. And much like the reality show star, no one really took him seriously. At first. 

One headline read “Recall makes rest of America think California is crazy.” What else is new? 

The recall ballot looked much like 2021’s attempt to recall Governor Gavin Newsom, who like Gray Davis, has sent California into a financial pothole

It mimicked the same insane cast of characters that littered the 2021 ballot including “Diff’rent Strokes” actor, Gary Coleman; adult film actress Mary Carey; porn publisher, Larry Flynt; and a woman who made herself a celebrity by buying up billboards all over Los Angeles, Angelyne; just to name a handful. By those standards, Schwarzenegger was likely the most qualified candidate. 

Comparative analysis was exactly the actor’s strategy. 

“How do I make myself kind of like, ‘normal’? By having everyone else weirder, right?”

Despite the typical political campaign troubles, complete with Trump-like accusations of sexual harassment, the actor won the recall election. 

Schwarzenegger’s promise? “I’m going to serve the people of California and I’m not going to serve just my party. I’m not going to be a party hack. I’m going to be a puppet servant and serve the people.” 

Now What? 

The former bodybuilder was nearly clueless when he took on the biggest role of his life. He had no idea what to do in his office. “How does this work? How do we get going here? What do I do in my office?”

Schwarzenegger’s lack of political savvy actually became an advantage. He wasn’t tied to protocol and therefore, able to do things that, while may not have made sense to the traditional politician, seemed to work. 

This included his famous “smoking tent” where the big wigs went to schmooze. 

He outlined his bipartisan tactic in the documentary: “I don’t want to screw you. Except what we agreed upon to screw each other.” 

He admitted that right after a deal would be agreed upon behind closed doors, each side would go out in public and attack each other in the press and give the people the show they wanted. 

His first term came with many defeats. His aggressive nature irked many in the legislature, particularly his comments about the “girlie men” in Sacramento who opposed his budget. 

Many felt his run as governor was simply a continuation of his acting career rather than someone who could really lead the state. Polling showed he wasn’t much more liked than Davis was just prior to his recall. 

The Issues 

While the “Governator,” as he became known, ran as a Republican, he was the kind of California Republican whose social policies leaned more left. He advocated for gay rights and gun control. 

He hired Democrat advisors including a gay abortion activist with the same last name as is wife’s notorious political family – Susan Kennedy – to be his chief of staff

He never could fix the state’s financial mess, which he had promised, and focused on many things that irritated powerful unions like teacher tenure

Halfway through is first term, he called for a special election in an effort to pass several of his proposed reforms, all of which were rejected by voters. 

One commercial summed up how people felt about Schwarzenegger nicely. Uniformed police officers expressed, “You’re not the governor we thought you’d be.” 

However, the accolades he gained for his bi-partisan infrastructure package called the “Strategic Growth Plan” that passed in 2006 was enough to turn the tide and get him reelected for another four years. 

Second Term

Fulfilling his most famous promise, “I’ll be back,” the world champion bodybuilder was elected for a second term in 2007. 

The next four years were marked by environmental policies more reflective of the progressive left. California’s leadership in the green economy started with Schwarzenegger at the helm.

“Why would we reduce greenhouse gasses by 5%? That’s bull****. That’s f—ing little thinking. What’s the matter with you guys? Let’s reduce greenhouse gasses by 25%.”

He also sought to diversify the state’s judicial makeup, appointing more minorities and women.

“He went out of his way to find the best and the brightest [judges] and make sure it was the most diverse and they achieved that.” 

A global recession led to Schwarzenegger’s decline in the polls, like many politicians at that time. 

While, predictably, the documentary applauds Schwarzenegger’s term as governor, he was not nearly as successful in his role as California’s leader as he was at the box office. By the end of his term, Schwarzenegger garnered a near-record low 23 percent approval rating.  

Schwarzenegger resembled the other actor-turned-governor with an “R” next to his name and with much less success. Maybe that’s why Ronald Reagan’s legacy lives on as one of the premier politicians in American history and the Terminator will better be remembered for his Hollywood blockbusters

Jennifer Galardi is the politics and culture editor for She has a Master’s in Public Policy from Pepperdine University and produces and hosts the podcast Connection with conversations that address health, culture, politics and policy. In a previous life, she wrote for publications in the health, fitness, and nutrition space. In addition, her pieces have been published in the Epoch Times and Pepperdine Policy Review.

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Written By

Jennifer Galardi is the politics and culture editor for She has a Master’s in Public Policy from Pepperdine University and produces and hosts the podcast Connection with conversations that address health, culture, politics and policy. In a previous life, she wrote for publications in the health, fitness, and nutrition space. In addition, her pieces have been published in the Epoch Times and Pepperdine Policy Review. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.