His popularity paved the way to early victories that include bringing down workers compensation costs and getting approval for economic recovery bonds.
But then things turned south when lawmakers missed the deadline for Schwarzenegger's first state budget and he resorted to name calling.
"If they don't have the guts, I call them 'girly-men,'" Schwarzenegger said. "They should go back to the table and fix the budget."
Most budgets since then also missed the mark, breaking the record twice for the latest spending plans ever, which led to more name-calling.
"It's like kindergarten up there, where they point fingers at each other," Schwarzenegger said.
But in the spirit of compromise when it was clear the recession wasn't going away, to end one of the longest budget stalemates, Schwarzenegger abandoned a campaign promise to never raises taxes, agreeing to the largest tax hike in California history.
"If you think that you can do this budget without any increase in revenues, you have a big math problem," he said.
Some of the biggest cuts ever to public schools and social programs also were part of the package, making him unpopular.
That bipartisanship was short lived when attempts to rebalance the budget failed and the state had to pay its bills with IOUs, the third time in state history.
Schwarzenegger's relationship with voters was just as hot and cold as it was with lawmakers.
In his early days, he offended nurses who protested proposed changes to job regulations.
"Special interests don't like me because I'm always kicking their butts," Schwarzenegger said.
That led to widespread rejection of his first attempt in 2005 to reform government through his favorite avenue, the ballot box, rather than working with the Legislature.
Voters, though, forgave him enough to not only re-elect him, but help him cement his legacy.
They approved a $50 billion bond package to improve infrastructure and jumpstart the high speed rail project.
Schwarzenegger was the only governor in decades to be able to hammer out an agreement to address the state's water needs.
Californians finally approved the political reforms he said will help elect more centrist politicians through open primaries and district lines drawn by citizens.
The governor, though, believes one of his biggest victories during his tenure was a landmark global warming law that dramatically cuts greenhouse gas emissions in California.
Since 2003, California's bond debt tripled, the state workforce jumped 10 percent and Californians paid almost a $1,000 more in taxes last year.
When Schwarzenegger hands the reigns over to Jerry Brown at the beginning of the year, he's indicated he may write a book and continue efforts to fight global warming and could even end up with a position in the Obama administration.