Obama no lock for Time’s Person of the Year, panel says

Barack Obama shocked many Republicans by winning the 2012 election over Mitt Romney, and it would seem the victory sealed the president's spot on the cover of Time magazine's annual Person of the Year issue.

But don't be surprised if he's not their choice, managing editor Rick Stengel told a panel that included former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, "Top Chef" host Padma Lakshmi, "Today" co-anchor Matt Lauer and "Breaking Bad" star Bryan Cranston on Tuesday in New York.

"It's an interesting year because we have a re-elected president," Stengel said. "Sometimes we pick them, sometimes we don't."

George W. Bush, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman are among the former two-term presidents to grace Time's year-end cover. But both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were not selected in their re-election year.

The Person of the Year, which was instituted in 1927, is "bestowed by the editors on the person or persons who most affected the news and our lives, for good or ill, and embodied what was important about the year." And sometimes the Person of the Year is not a specific person at all. In 2011, for example, it was The Protester. In 2006, it was You.

Ultimately, none of the panelists assembled Tuesday picked Obama as their nominee for the 2012 Person of the Year. Lakshmi nominated several activist women, including Malala Yousafzai, Aung San Suu Kyi and Sandra Fluke; Lauer chose the unemployed worker; Cranston suggested "new media."

[Related: Will Time magazine choose a dead guy as its Person of the Year?]

Gingrich said the American voter would be his choice, but wouldn't bet against Obama. "I have twice underestimated him by a large margin," Gingrich said, adding: "If they pick Obama, it would be perfectly fair to have a tiny elephant crying somewhere in the corner."

"I don't think it was about Barack Obama this time," Lauer said, "as much as it was about a demographic shift in this country that worked against the Republican party in general."

And in what should be a chilling warning to the Time magazine sales staff, Stengel suggested the "data miners" who helped Obama's re-election effort could be his choice.

When Mother Nature was mentioned as a potential Person of the Year, Gingrich--Time's Man of the Year in 1995--pushed back.

"I think we exaggerate this," he said. "How do you know what the right climate is? We don't have the power to prevent it, the money to prevent it, we can't get poor countries to prevent it and Europe is going bankrupt trying to fight it."

Like Gingrich, Mother Nature was once a Time Person of the Year, in 1988. The cover line: "Endangered Earth."