Who Should Be TIME’s 2012 Person of the Year? Our Panel Sounds Off

TIME corralled some of the top minds in politics, news and arts to debate who deserves to be 2012 Person of the Year

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Since 1927 TIME has tried to take the measure of each year by spotlighting the person who, according to TIME’s founder Henry Luce, has most influenced the news—for better or for worse.

With that mandate in mind, Tuesday afternoon TIME corralled some of the top minds in politics, news and the arts to debate who deserves to be our 85th Person of the Year.

The five-person panel was comprised of Today Show host Matt Lauer, Breaking Bad actor Bryan Cranston, Speaker Newt Gingrich (who was TIME’s “Man of the Year” in 1995), Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. Moderated by TIME Managing Editor Rick Stengel, the panelists debated many nominees, including President Obama, Mother Nature and a few prominent women.

Who would they choose for 2012 Person of the Year?

Padma Lakshmi kicked off the selection process with a poignant reflection on Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani activist who was shot in the head by the Taliban for advocating women’s rights. “You have a 15-year-old girl who is a beacon of light in the heart of darkness,” Lakshmi said. ” In Calabasas, Calif., you have Muslims and Kardashians living side by side. It’s not like that in the rest of the world. Even after Malala was shot, she put a statement out. She’s not only for human dignity, but for freedom of expression. Isn’t that what America is about?” Lakshmi also nominated Aung San Suu Kyi—”which is a no-brainer,” she said—and Sandra Fluke.

(MORE: TIME’s Person of the Year, from 1927-2011)

Fellow panelist Newt Gingrich agreed that Malala would be a forward-thinking choice. He discussed honoring job-creating entrepreneurs, Chancellor Angela Merkel for holding the European Union together and President Obama—”I have twice underestimated him by a large margin,” he said. But Gingrich ultimately settled on the American voter as his nominee. Matt Lauer stepped in to remind Gingrich that the Speaker had only recently determined his POY choice. “It’s true,” Gingrich said. “Yesterday I was with Obama.”

“Can I quote you on that?” Bryan Cranston joked.

TIME’s Rick Stengel noted that “it’s an interesting year because we have a re-elected President. Sometimes we pick them, sometimes we don’t.” If President Obama were to win again he would join an elite club: Only 12 other people have been named Person of the Year twice, including Ronald Reagan, General George Marshall, Winston Churchill, and Franklin D. Roosevelt—who received the title three times. But none of the panelists listed the President as their first choice.

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Matt Lauer said Obama’s victory was not solely about him. “This election was about Mayor Nutter and others putting out an enormous effort to get out the vote,” he said. “I don’t think it was about Barack Obama this time, as much as it was about a demographic shift in this country that worked against the Republican part in in general.” Instead, Lauer chose the unemployed American worker. “Workers were the subject of every rally and stump speech during the election. And, looking forward, Obama’s agenda has a lot to do with unemployed workers.”

When Stengel called on “the Master of the Turnout” Mayor Nutter, he picked women. “Women freedom fighters all around the world have dominated,” Nutter said. “And they will continue to do so for a good long while.”

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Bryan Cranston, representing the arts, mentioned Jeremy Lin (“he transformed the ideal of the American professional basketball player”), fastest man in the world Usain Bolt, as well as singer Adele for her haunting, beautiful voice, and British boy ban One Direction (“the mini-Beatles sensation”), who appeared on the Today Show this morning. (Lauer joked: “If you say Psy next, I’m out of here!) Cranston’s more serious choice was “new media,” which he said helped bring down governments this year as well as former CIA Director David Petraeus this past week.

A debate about nominating Mother Nature divided the panel among predictable party lines. Gingrich, who has long voiced his doubts about the effects of global warming said, “I think we exaggerate this. 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.” Mayor Nutter pointed to the evidence he’s seen in Philadelphia: “We’ve had two hurricanes and an earthquake in two years…Let us not think we are helpless.”

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Stengel steered the conversation back to Obama. Should the “data miners” who helped get Obama reelected and who transformed American politics be nominated? Is Obama a symbolic choice for the American people in much the same way Malala is for activist women? “People saw hope and change four years ago, but I think there is more frustration today,” Lauer said. Mayor Nutter offered a different view. “We don’t hang out in many of the same circles,” he joked to Lauer. “I see a sense of pride and unfairness. After the 2008 election, everyone was singing all three verses of “Kumbaya”… Now bipartisanship is over.”

Perhaps Gingrich summed up his partisan views perfectly: “If they pick Obama, it would be perfectly fair to have a tiny elephant crying somewhere in the corner.”

Come back to TIME.com throughout the next month as we continue the Person of the Year deliberations. We’ll soon release our poll where you can vote on who should be our 2012 Person of the Year. And the official choice, and issue, will be unveiled in mid-December.