David Robert Foster

2021 Synar Graduate Research Fellowship

David’s work uses game theory to understand American political institutions. Its focus has been the opportunities for policy and political change that exist given gridlock in Congress. In particular, his dissertation examines presidential unilateral action. Before starting his PhD, he studied economics and government at Hamilton College, graduating summa cum laude in 2010; he then consulted in New York and Washington, DC on securities and antitrust litigation, respectively.

Research Summary: Contemporary American politics is characterized by gridlock at the federal level.  Yet while opportunities to pass legislation in Congress have shrunk, policy-making has not completely disappeared.  Rather, it has increasingly taken new forms.  One such form is the president's pursuit of unilateral action, whether through an executive order, memorandum, or other instrument.  My view is that to understand some important cases of unilateral action, we must first understand why some alternative policy-making avenue is foreclosed.  I argue, though, that a proper analysis of this foreclosure must itself incorporate the ability of the president to pursue unilateral action.  My dissertation takes up the task of applying these principles, presenting an original, fresh, and theoretically rigorous perspective on presidential unilateral action. It elucidates an increasingly significant form of policymaking while uniting disparate literatures previously seen as unrelated, with important substantive consequences for American politics. It also underscores the importance of looking to the role of private actors in the policymaking process.

In the first paper, forthcoming at The Journal of Politics, I set the stage for the dissertation. I contend that understanding unilateral action requires examining the conditions that precede and motivate the president's action. But when members of Congress can anticipate unilateral action, their failure to act cannot be explained by "gridlock intervals" in a standard spatial model. I argue instead that the prospect of group or public pressure may lead Congress to decline to pass legislation because doing so transfers authority to the president, thus heading off potential attacks from policy-motivated voters or interest groups. This helps to explain the president's accumulation of authority over time. The broader implication of this paper is that we should examine the role of outside pressure when presidents can issue executive orders, just as a large literature has already examined its effect on Congress in isolation.

Another paper explores how political communications, particularly from the president, may engender backlash. Recent politics has been characterized by two phenomena: politicians' transparent racial appeals, and backlash against minority groups. I present a novel explanation for this backlash that hinges on politicians' ability to make such racial appeals credible. The starting point is a cheap talk model in which a politician (sender) is aligned with one of two opposed groups (receivers) and seeks to communicate her preferences. Following this, groups may offer the politician support. Importantly, an increase in the weaker group's capacity may enable credible communication by the opposed type of politician, ironically making the weaker group worse-off. I illustrate this with a case study on immigration policy and the 2016 US presidential election. More broadly, the model and case show how the behavior of strategic actors can underpin realignments, with shifts in relative group power proving crucial in enabling politicians to assemble novel political coalitions.

In summary, my research seeks to understand the relationship between gridlock in Congress and opportunities for policy change outside of Congress, with a particular focus on the ability of the president to motivate and initiate policy change.

Research interests: 

Major(s): PhD Candidate