Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden’s red eyes and shaky memory have become major media stories in recent days, complicating the 76-year-old Democrat’s insistence that he is up for running the White House.
Coverage of Mr. Biden’s tired expressions and weak campaign schedule earlier this year raised questions, but his fitness for the job has become more worrying.
The Washington Post reported that Mr. Biden bungled details of a dramatic story about issuing a war medal to a Navy captain who was reluctant to take it, insisting he didn’t deserve an award because men died in the operation. Mr. Biden mangled details such as the branch of service, people involved and the timing of the events, The Post said.
Then on Wednesday, at a CNN forum on climate change, close-ups appeared to show blood pooling in Mr. Biden’s eye. Photos quickly went viral.
Those compounded questions from early last month, when Mr. Biden said he was vice president during the Florida school massacre last year. In fact, he had left office more than a year earlier.
“Anytime you have a 76-year-old running for president, particularly one that suffered two brain aneurysms, even though they were 33 years ago, [he] will get an additional level of scrutiny and discussion, as Biden has and is,” said Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report.
Mr. Biden’s red eye was assumed to be a subconjunctival hemorrhage, which, according to the Mayo Clinic, “occurs when a tiny blood vessel breaks just underneath the clear surface of your eye” and is usually harmless.
But candidates know that any health problem can become a political problem, particularly when there’s a pattern.
For Mr. Biden, it’s questions about his physical health and his mental acuity. Mr. Cook said he doesn’t see Mr. Biden’s issues as a problem — yet.
“If it stays at the current level, it won’t be a problem for him, but anything much more could become a real challenge,” he said.
Other analysts, though, said the incidents are taking a toll.
“Joe Biden’s verbal miscues have gone from being benign to possibly electorally disqualifying for a presidential nominee,” said Richard E. Vatz, a professor of political rhetoric at Towson University.
“His recent serial misstatements, such as his getting locations incorrect of shootings as well as his own speaking locations added to his conflating a number of largely false stories regarding his pinning medals on soldiers and then defending his mistakes with ‘details are irrelevant’ are leading him down a spiral to a likely impossibility to win the Democratic nomination, much less a national election,” Mr. Vatz said.
Far from retreating, Mr. Biden leaned into the questions. He said angrily that it didn’t matter that he botched some details of the story about troops’ medals. His bigger point, he said, was the heroism of the troops.
“I don’t know what the problem is. I mean, what is it that I said wrong?” he told Jonathan Capehart in a podcast.
But the political danger is not lost on him, and he has turned to humor to try to defuse it.
“Are you going nuts?” Stephen Colbert asked Mr. Biden during an appearance on “The Late Show” this week.
Mr. Biden answered, “The reason I came on the Jimmy Kimmel show is I am not.”
Despite his stumbles, Mr. Biden sits atop national polls and is leading the field in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two stops on the nomination calendar.
JoAnn Hardy, chair of the Cerro Gordo County Democrats, said the media talk more about Mr. Biden’s gaffes than voters do, but she added that the candidate’s support could be stronger in the state and his overall energy level could be higher.
“He doesn’t seem to be as steady in that sometimes he is up and sometimes he is down,” she said. “At the same time, you know, there is something about Joe. He has been around, and he knows how things need to work to be successful, and there is something grandfatherly-like about him — that he will come and comfort us and fix things.”
Miriam Kenning, a longtime Iowa activist, said she thinks the fixation on Mr. Biden’s miscues is driven by ageism. Still, she said, the missteps and mistakes have shaken her confidence in her preferred candidate.
“There is shake, a shiver, but when I analyze what I want from a leader for four years, he has that ability to move me,” she said. “Maybe it is a yearning for what was.”
Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee, said Mr. Biden can’t hide from his missteps.
“He has forgotten which state he is in, he forgot which president he worked for, he’s made up stories,” she said Thursday on Fox News. “It’s time after time after time. These gaffes are adding up. It raises questions about is he ready for this presidency?”