Analysis: White House dominance of pandemic message might feed political divides

 White House Covid-19 Briefing  on June 22.

(CNN)Once a week, sometimes twice a week, the nation hears the official report about the coronavirus pandemic -- straight from the White House.

Just as former President Donald Trump owned the first year of the pandemic, Biden owns the second year. And while it's important to have the White House and President out front in a national emergency of this magnitude, it's likely the near total White House domination of the response is widening the unhelpful political divides that are making it harder than it needs to be to fight coronavirus.
The briefings are the most evident example.
    Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, give brief comments about the latest statistics, predict where the pandemic is heading, and discuss a piece of research or two that help explain the latest understanding of Covid-19.
      Overseeing all of it is White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeff Zients. It's a White House sponsored event, coordinated by White House staff, and attended by political reporters as well as specialist health reporters.
      Although the briefings follow the science -- as President Joe Biden pledged when he took office in January -- they are short and include frequent references to the federal government's involvement. They are deeply branded with the White House stamp.
      This past week was an exception - to a degree. On Thursday, Biden spoke alone about the government's new push for vaccine and mask requirement.
      On Tuesday, Walensky released new guidance about masks -- saying even fully vaccinated people should wear masks indoors if they are in areas with significant or high levels of coronavirus transmission. She cited the science as backing the CDC decision and didn't mention politics.
      And she briefed alone, in a CDC-organized teleconference. It was the first CDC briefing that did not originate from the White House since April 23, when the CDC and US Food and Drug Administration held a joint briefing on vaccines.
      But by the time she spoke, the White House had already upstaged her, leaking news of the updated guidance hours before the briefing. White House officials made it clear they had taken part, if not in the actual decision to change the guidance, at least on deciding how and when to announce it.
      It's a deliberate and understandable move. The White House wants to be seen as leading an all-of-government response.
      "It was never not political," said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
      Biden himself, and political appointees, are front and center. And under most circumstances, it might even be desirable to see a president flanked by science and medical advisers, leading the country through a pandemic.
      But in 2021, it's an approach that may be helping feed the deep political divisions that have characterized this pandemic like no other event in living memory.
      The pandemic has worsened the sense that there are two Americas -- one in which people trust what science and the federal government is telling them, and another in which people subscribe to "alternative facts" and reject anything that might come from the Biden administration.
      There's little opportunity for people to accept the science without accepting that it's what the administration wants, too. There's no out for conservatives to accept the science without also accepting direction from people they see as liberals bent on ruining the country.

      When supporting Trump means rejecting vaccines

      Thus, the same people who supported Trump are often turning their noses up at vaccines, refusing to wear masks and piling into parties, crowding into restaurants and sitting shoulder to shoulder at sporting events.
      "As you have probably seen, the vaccination rates track very closely with the 2020 election results," said Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College who specializes in political communication.
      And, with the exception of California, states where infections are increasing the most are all states where most voters supported Trump, including Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Missouri.
      "What we are seeing playing out now with the surges and the checkerboard vaccination rates between the states has been going on from the very beginning," said Lawrence Gostin, professor of global health law at Georgetown Law School.
      "Whether it was ventilation or PPE or lockdowns, it's all been highly politicized. And after two years, I don't see that changing."
      The Biden administration is reaching out to the vaccine-resistant states, and encouraging Republican elected officials to speak in favor of vaccines, with mixed results. The federal government is also spending money on local pandemic communications and vaccination campaigns that make use of trusted local leaders in churches and community groups.
      And it's letting the scientists talk -- but mostly from the White House platform. This gives a national boost to what the CDC director or Surgeon General is saying, but it can also taint how their advice is viewed.
      "Under Trump there was a widespread sense -- somewhat justified -- that he was forcing the CDC and FDA to do his bidding. Under Biden there is a widespread sense -- also somewhat justified -- that he doesn't have to force them; they want to do his bidding," said risk communications expert Peter Sandman.
      Biden goes to great lengths to deny this.
      "I do not tell any scientists what they should do. I do not interfere," Biden said during a CNN town hall last week.
      And there doesn't seem to be much White House interference in the wording of CDC guidance, for example -- in sharp contrast to what happened under the Trump administration. But that's a low bar to bea