THE PRESIDENT's essential instrument for the translation of his vision into concrete goals and policies in the executive branch. In successful presidencies, Lincoln's rule is operative: How the president votes at the Cabinet table determines whether the ayes or nays have it.

No president can delegate his ultimate responsibility, but if a government as large and complex as ours is to function, he must delegate a measure of authority. How well, consistently and effectively the executive branch functions under any given administration will depend to a great extent on how wisely its president chooses, and uses, his Cabinet.

The basic criteria of selection should be excellence and competence, preferably demonstrated by successful experience in fields at least related to those for which any particular Cabinet officer is to be made responsible. One hallmark of a true leader is a willingness to pick, and effectively use, outstandingly able subordinates. A fear of being overshadowed is an almost certain indicator of inner weakness and insecurity.

Harry Truman's formal education was limited, and he never expected to have the presidency thrust upon him, but he rose impressively to its challenges. Two things that enabled him to do so were his willingness to have people like George Marshall, Dean Acheson and James Forrestal in his Cabinet, and his ability to harness their talents effectively without any of them -- or the country -- ever forgetting who was president. A president willing and able to relieve Gen. [Douglas] MacArthur for insubordination would not have allowed his administration, or the country, to be embarrassed by an ambassador to the United Nations.

The president's best use of his Cabinet is somethng that cannot be determined by immutable rules. Nonetheless, experience teaches a few things about the necessary balance in this sphere of presidential activity. A president cannot squander time on minutiae; Cabinet members must be responsible for managing their respective departments, for which they need a delegation of requisite authority or the right kind of presidential support and backing.

On policy matters affecting the responsibilities or interests of more than one Cabinet department the president should compel every Cabinet officer to make policy recommendations to the president in front of, and open to challenge by, other Cabinet officers -- especially those whose responsibilities or interests are affected by the issue in question. Here, however, the consideration of balance again comes into play; every Cabinet officer must have periodic private access to the president; otherwise that officer's morale, prestige and hence effectiveness will be gravely undermined.

When presidential decisions are taken, Cabinet members must know and understand those decisions. This may sound so self-evident as to be trivial, but I know from experience and first-hand observation that it is not. There have been many Oval Office, Cabinet Room or other meetings such as Lyndon Johnson's "Tuesday lunches" -- often not held on Tuesdays, or over lunch -- convened by a president from which Cabinet officers attending have returned to their respective departments and given radically different, sometimes diametrically opposed, accounts to their subordinates of presidential decisions and instructions. The methods used by the president to accomplish this vital task may vary, but the task is essential to the functioning of the presidency and is frequently overlooked.

If well chosen, Cabinet officers will be strong personalities with independent minds and views -- and often, independent constituencies. To be effective, however, our government must speak with a coherent, resonably consistent voice. The balance to be struck here is difficult and tenuous, subject to continual adjustments dictated by circumstances. Each Cabinet officer must have enough free rein to run his or her department effectively and to exhibit the independence of spirit and judgment that is of such great value to the president. Nonetheless, the Cabinet as a whole must pull together as a team toward the administration and party goals that, in the final analysis, the president must define and over which he must be the final arbiter. In short, if the executive branch is to be effective, essential Cabinet independence has to be balanced with equally essential Cabinet discipline.

The same holds true for responsibility. In our government's executive branch, as in any large organizational structure, decisions cannot be discussed and debated forever. At some point they have to be made and, once made, executed. No Cabinet officer has the authority of the president, an unpalatable fact every Cabinet officer must accept. No administration can function effectively if Cabinet officers refuse to accept presidential decisions or if they feel free to try to undercut or reverse decisions they may not like by personal lobbying with Congress, the media or anyone else.

Cabinet members can be invaluable in expounding, defending and lobbying for the president's own programs in Congress officer's personal range of contacts. tCabinet officers will want to be as responsive as possible to congressional needs and desires -- in fact, they have to be, since Congress controls their departments' budgets. Still, no Cabinet officer can spend all or even much of the time testifying before a plethora of congressional committees and subcommittees and still properly discharge the many other responsibilities of Cabinet office. A recent secretary of the treasury, for example, made more than 400 public appearances on Capitol Hill. No one can do that and also devote proper attention to the functioning of the Treasury Department.

It is essential that policies that have an impact on more than one Cabinet department's responsibilities be framed in colsultation with all department affected -- even when only one department will have primary responsibility for implementation. The National Security Council exists, and was established by statute in 1947, for precisely this purpose in the field of foreign and defense-related affairs. It should be used; this wheel may need improvement, but it does not need to be reinvented.

A Cabinet officer -- especially a strong one -- will insist on having a considerable voice in the selection of his immediate subordinates. However, a president (or his immediate staff) will need to ensure that all those chosen for subcabinet positions are essentially in accord with the president's basic goals and philosophies -- and so not unduly reflect the personal hobby horses of any individual Cabinet member of other senior administration official.

The touchstones for selecting such officials should be talent, competence and experience. After threshold standards in these fields are met, many other factors come into play. More than the Cabinet itself, this is the place to ensure the representation of those groups or constituencies the president deems necessary to his administration's policy formulation. These positions are especially vulnerable to change, and the president's expectations of loyalty from his political appointees at the subcabinet level must be reciprocated. A president who neglects his troops, especially those who have followed and supported him in adversity, will soon face adversity alone.