During a panel of California journalists at a post-election forum last week put together by the Unruh Institute at USC, there was lots of discussion about what Gov. Schwarzenegger might do next. Many theories were advanced, but no conclusions reached.

The immediate question is whether Schwarzenegger will leave California before his term is up and join the Obama administration. The governor himself has appeared to rule this out with several statements saying he intends to serve out his term. As someone who spent three years of my life researching the life and politics of this man, I would advise against taking these statements at face value.

While Schwarzenegger has been more consistent in his policy positions than he’s given credit for (most — but not all — of his flip flops are cases of other people hearing what they want to hear), the governor is always inconsistent when it comes to matters of personal strategy and his own career.

As a bodybuilder, Schwarzenegger on several occasions indicated he would retire only to show up and compete at major tournaments. As a movie star, he frequently changed his mind about which movies he’d make, to the frustration of those who wanted to work with him. For years, he ruled out making a third Terminator film — only to make just such a film when the money was right.

And when it comes to politics, remember this: In August 2003, Schwarzenegger told his own political advisors and many dear old friends that he wasn’t going to run for governor. And then, hours later, he changed his mind and went on The Tonight Show to announce he was running.

So as we enter this holiday week, here’s my best guess on where he’s headed, with odds for you gamblers out there:

Joining the Obama administration in an energy or environmental post after his term as governor is up. Even money. This is a much better bet than commonly believed. Schwarzenegger is deeply interested in environmental issues and likely will pursue them through some kind of organization or foundation of his own after he leaves public life. A federal appointment would be a springboard to that work.

Ideally, Schwarzenegger would want some kind of post — perhaps with a title like “climate change czar” — that is high-level but exists outside the normal chain of command. The governor has said that environmental and energy policy needs to be removed from the usual political pressures, and it’s not impossible to imagine a new post with a term longer than that of a president — say, 10 years, like FBI director. After years of being tied in knots by the Lilliputians of the California legislature, Schwarzenegger would love a job with some real regulatory power and running room.

There’s been some question about whether President “No Drama” Obama and Gov. Mehr Drama would be a good stylistic fit. But Obama’s cabinet appointments to date show he has a taste for strong personalities. And Schwarzenegger, having been a governor, understands well what an executive’s appointments should and should not do. I’d guess he would be a strong advocate for his views, but would keep his differences with the president private. Those who doubt that Obama would appoint Schwarzenegger should remember how close the governor’s in-laws are to the president-elect.

Joining the Obama administration in an energy or environmental post before his term as governor is up. 5-2. Perhaps Uncle Teddy can get him a nice federal appointment as a present for this Christmas?

This is a possibility for all the reasons stated above. Schwarzenegger would receive some criticism for leaving before his term is up. But less than you might think. The governor has made Herculean efforts to try to forge bipartisan compromises to address the state’s problems. And for all these efforts, what does he get? Criticism from the left for cuts and criticism from the right — most recently by the California Republican Party — for proposing tax increases. His last two years in office are likely to be full of the same sort of criticism, misery and inaction. Schwarzenegger could argue, with reason, that he can produce more for Californians in the next two years from Washington than he can from Sacramento.

Obama also has a stronger incentive to appoint Schwarzenegger now rather than later. Obama could, with one appointment, give himself some bipartisan cred while enjoying the partisan bounty of delivering the California governorship to the Democrats. Lt. Gov. John Garamendi would take over and finish out the term. If I were Gov. Schwarzenegger, I would seek leverage in the current budget situation by reminding Republicans of this fact. “I know you don’t like me,” he could say, “but if you don’t start playing ball, I might just take my ball and leave you with a Democratic governor.”

Retire from elective politics when his term is up and become a global advocate for energy, environmental and political reform. 3-1.

This might make the most sense for the governor and his family. Schwarzenegger has said that his next move will be up to his wife, and he might actually mean it. Being out of office would free him up to spend more time with his four children. It also would give him more freedom to say what he likes. As freewheeling as he sometimes seems as governor, we’re actually seeing the buttoned-down, highly disciplined Schwarzenegger these days. Another point: out of office, he also would be free to make money — paid speeches, investments in green industries, work in the drug-compromised fitness world — without much scrutiny.

Run for the U.S. Senate in 2012. 20-1. If U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein is not running for re-election (ether because she’s retired or become governor of California), Schwarzenegger might make a run. But the chances are low. Few people are less suited to the U.S. Senate than the current governor of California. This is a governor who likes to have control over his own schedule. But junior senators don’t have such control. And Schwarzenegger is too old — he’d turn 65 in 2012 — to build the long career necessary to join the leadership.

Another problem: Schwarzenegger would have difficulty winning the seat. He’s no shoo-in in a Republican primary. Conservatives would love to trip him up there. And even if he survives a primary, California is a blue state which may be reluctant to send even a liberal Republican to the U.S. Senate.

Run for the U.S. Senate in 2010. 30-1. U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, who would be vulnerable if the Republicans ever bothered to nominate an electable candidate, is worried about a Schwarzenegger challenge. She shouldn’t be. If Schwarzenegger stays in office, he’d have to spend his last two years running for Senate. There are too many problems inherent in being a governor and Senate candidate at the same time. Just ask Jerry Brown.

Run for mayor of Los Angeles. 50-1. The theory is that he could remain an executive and shorten his commute. But he’s never expressed any interest in the non-partisan job. And it’s not at all clear he could win an election in Democratic Los Angeles. Labor interests, which have fought Schwarzenegger over and over again, would seek to block his election. And even if he won, they’d make his life miserable.

Run for president of Austria. 100-1. Schwarzenegger retains his dual citizenship. More than a decade ago, officials of the center-right Austrian People’s Party tried to convince him to return and run. But his American political positions wouldn’t translate well to Austrian politics. He’s shown no interest in moving back to his home country. This ship has sailed.

Go back into the movies. 500-1. Schwarzenegger appeared to be bored in the later stages of his movie career. That led him into politics–he filled the hours during the shooting of Terminator 3 by running an initiative campaign from the set. Perhaps there are a few cameos, or even a small comedic role, in his future. But his action hero days are over.