In the toughest of times, California has been called ungovernable. The billions of dollars tied to education, the state prison system and pensions means steep cuts to social programs are common the moment a recession begins. California is so huge that, if it were its own country, it would rank 35th in the world in population, just behind Poland, and 12th in gross domestic product, just behind Canada and ahead of Australia. A proposal to split California into six smaller states might not be on the fast track, but its supporters aren’t laughed out of the room.

But Gov. Jerry Brown (D), who on Thursday said he will run for an unprecedented fourth term in office, wants to challenge the notion that the state is unmanageable.

Over the last three years, California’s outlook has conspired to give Brown the talking points he will use in his re-election bid: The state has a budget surplus just a few years after being $20 billion in the red. Crime is down, investments in infrastructure are up, and voters are giving Brown credit. In a Public Policy Institute of California poll conducted in January, 60 percent of likely voters said they approve of the way Brown is handling his job.

“If you had asked me 40 years ago — when I first ran for governor — what I would be doing in 2014, I could never have guessed. Nor could anyone else. Yet, by the grace of God and habits of perseverance instilled in me by my family, the Dominican nuns and the Jesuits, I am here and ready to go,” Brown said in an open letter posted to his campaign’s Web site on Thursday.

In earlier years, Brown was jokingly called “Gov. Moonbeam.” But the Brown in the governor’s mansion today is grounded much more on earth than in outer space — sometimes to his own party’s chagrin. After years of harsh cuts during the recession, Democrats, who control super majorities in the state legislature, were disappointed that Brown’s proposed budget this year called for socking away billions in a rainy-day fund for future emergencies, rather than restoring some of those cuts.

In particular, Democratic Senate President Darrell Steinberg has pushed to create a universal pre-kindergarten program for four-year-olds. Brown’s budget made no mention of the program, which would have cost the state about $1 billion a year to cover 350,000 children.

California’s current budget windfall has come almost entirely from a rebounding stock market, and from billions in revenue generated by a capital gains tax — the most volatile revenue stream for any state government. Brown, scarred by budget battles both a few years ago and a few decades ago, said the state should save money in the good years to pay for the bad years.

“I think that kind of ping-pong budgeting, where first you ping and then you pong, makes no sense,” Brown said in an interview last month. “It’s cruel budgeting to propose a spending program and then have to finance it two or three years from now by cutting somebody else’s program.”

He is the favorite to win a fourth term, after banking more than $18 million. His closest rival, Neel Kashkari, the man tasked with overseeing the Trouble Asset Relief Program, has raised just $1 million since entering the race a month ago. The PPIC survey, conducted before Kashkari formally got into the race, showed Brown leading another, more conservative Republican by 46 points.

Brown’s third term, which began in 2011, came 28 years after the end of his second term. When the second was over, his approval ratings were upside down; a Field Poll conducted just before Brown surrendered the governorship to Republican George Deukmejian in 1983 found just 43 percent viewed him favorably. The economy was suffering a recession, and Brown’s liberal streak set him at odds with what was then a more centrist state.

That liberalism, and his own eccentricities, came to define Brown, who in his first stint as governor suggested California should launch its own space satellites and dated the singer Linda Ronstadt. In the 1970s, a Chicago columnist dubbed him “Gov. Moonbeam,” according to a 2010 New York Times story. (When Brown said he would run for a third term in 2010, The Sacramento Bee asked readers for campaign slogans. One reader suggested “From Moonbeam to Aspercreme,” a reference to the then-71-year old Brown’s advanced age).

Today, Brown is hardly seen as a free-spending liberal.

In interviews, Brown, Steinberg and several other legislative leaders maintained they have strong relationships, and that the last several years in which Democrats dominated the legislature has produced what Brown called “a model of legislative-executive cooperation.” But below the surface, and only after being assured of anonymity, lobbyists and Democratic members of the Assembly and Senate say Brown has frayed relations with his own party. He keeps his circle of advisers small and tight-knit — many who served in his first administration returned to their positions in 2011.

“In a state where we routinely spend money faster than we get it, Brown wants to tuck most of it away; [Democrats] in the legislature want to bolster flagging social welfare programs, well aware of how that can play out in the 2014 elections,” said Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State University.

Only one adviser, Anne Gust, Brown’s wife since 2005, sits in on every meeting of consequence. Those who have been in meetings with Brown say California’s first lady has her own broad policy portfolio and authority. Some lobbyists believe the best way to win the governor’s favor is to win over Gust first. She was instrumental both in Brown’s 2010 victory over former eBay executive Meg Whitman and in passing Proposition 30, a measure that increased personal income taxes; it was one of just five tax increases that have passed muster with California voters in the century since the state has allowed popular ballot measures.

Brown’s office in the state capitol in Sacramento, a square space on the ground floor that rings a central outdoor courtyard, is stuffed with mementos of the past. There are several photos of his father, the late Gov. Pat Brown Sr., on the walls. A massive blue marlin that the elder Brown caught has been stuffed and hangs on the wall of the foyer. The table around which visitors wait for their appointments was once a makeshift stage on which Brown declared victory on Election Night in 2010.

But Brown’s priorities lie in the distant future, far beyond the end of his fourth term. Brown is pushing the legislature to approve funding for a high-speed rail project that would link northern and southern California, a project that will cost more than $60 billion and take years to build; the first $10 billion in funding is tied up in court, though the state will begin building a 29-mile segment this year.

“We should be able to have at least one high-speed rail [system], and the only place that’s going to happen in our lifetime is California,” he said.

The governor also wants to see long-term solutions to the state’s water shortage, possibly in the form of two 35-mile tunnels running under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a $25 billion project that would eventually move water to a parched area of farmland. And this year, he will back a proposed ballot initiative that would direct state dollars into a rainy-day fund, money that could help the next governor deal with the next recession.

“I’m not interested in a Jerry Brown legacy, whatever the hell that might be,” Brown said. His initiatives, he said, will help cope with an influx of millions of new residents over the forthcoming decades.

“We’re not a homogenous state where it’s easy to have 60, 70 percent of the people agree on things. There are divisions,” he went on. “These are longer term, serious, societal commitments that help knit us together as a people.”

Perhaps that’s as ambitious as proposing to send a California satellite into space. But it’s much more grounded than what that Chicago columnist might have expected from Gov. Moonbeam.